Les Edgerton Shows How to Write Amazing Dialogue–Part 2 AN EXERCISE

Les Edgerton

Les Edgerton

I hope you guys enjoyed Les’s guest post yesterday. Today, Les is offering a bonus…an EXERCISE to help you develop your skills for writing killer dialogue.

Take it away, Les!

Exercise on Subtext

This exercise is primarily for the teacher teaching basic writing principles, although perhaps even more advanced writers may get something out of it. It’s an exercise I use in my “on-ground” classes when I’m teaching at a college.

It represents a very basic example of dialogue that’s not “on-the-nose” or a Q&A exchange, to show students a very easy to understand example of how off-the-nose dialogue works and how subtext informs the dialogue more than the actual dialogue.

I usually have two students come to the front of the room and read the following script. Then, I ask the questions that follow. It’s a simple exercise, but I’m happy to report that most of the students really enjoy coming up with their own exchanges, which is part of the assignment.

If anyone uses this in an actual class, I’d love to hear your feedback. (Also, you may want to write your own example—I admit this isn’t deathless prose, but hey! I wrote it in about five minutes. Gimme a break…)


She: The Bentley’s baby was cute, wasn’t it?

He: I don’t think I saw it. I was in the kitchen with the guys all night.

She: Well, she was a cute little baby.

He: Great. Women think all babies are cute. Ever heard a woman say someone’s kid was ugly? I mean, except for Shrek’s parents’ friends?

She: Brad and Gena seem so happy.

He: They should be. He just got a promotion.

She: Silly! I mean the baby.

He: There goes the promotion. The raise part of it, anyway.

She: I think they’ll manage. Babies are worth a sacrifice or two.

He: If you say so.

She: Look at it practically. Their little girl will probably take care of them in their old age.

He: That’s a great tradeoff. Let’s see… take care of a kid for 22 years—I’m including college—and they stick you in a home for your final three years. Probably use your own money to fund your own old folks’ home. Sounds like a good deal.

She: It’s not like that.

He: Yeah. Whatever.

Silence for a few seconds.

She: Samantha.

He: Huh?

She: Samantha. They named her Samantha. I think that’s cute. I wonder if they’ll call her “Sam.”

He: They ought to call her “Stinky.”

She: What?

He: You heard me. “Stinky.” The kid smells.

She: All kids smell when they make a mess. You smelled. Besides, how would you know if she smelled? You said you stayed in the kitchen.

He: All kids smell.

She: Then you change their diaper.

He: Yeah. There goes the entertainment budget.

She: You mean the beer budget.

He: So?

She: So is if you cut out a few beers, you’d have plenty of diapers… and lose a few pounds…

He: You sayin’ I’m fat?

She: I’m saying diapers don’t cost that much. A six-pack or two.

He: Maybe. But how many six-packs does it cost to send a kid to college?

She (laughing): About what you go through in a week!

He (mutters): Must be a cheap school. All the classes on the Internet? The school’s in the Caribbean?

She: She’ll probably get scholarships anyway.

He: That’s cool. That means she’ll spend all her time partyin’. End up pregnant.

She: She’ll be way too smart for that.

He: Like her mom was?

Who were this man and woman really talking about? What did the woman want? What did the man want? Did either of them come right out and say what they were really talking about?

This is dialogue that isn’t “on the nose.” It’s one way good dialogue is written. What’s important is what isn’t said–the subtext. The subtext is the real message that’s under the surface of the actual dialogue spoken.

This is what I want you to write (in teams). Two people talking about something that is really being expressed in subtext—dialogue that’s not “on the nose.” You can pick any subject you want for them to discuss (within reason!). Whatever they’re really talking about can’t be mentioned. After you deliver your dialogue, the class will attempt to guess what it is you’ve really been talking about.

Time: 2-3 minutes performance time per person. I’d rehearse this so your team falls within the time limit. That’s where I’ll take the most points off, for being short of the minimum.

Notes: You don’t need to memorize the exchange but can read off your script.

Bonus points: Your team can gain bonus points if you use props and/or costumes. (I’ve had some really original costumes and props show up…)

Hope this helps understand better what subtext is and what off-the-nose dialogue is. Write solid subtext dialogue and you’ll draw comparisons to folks like Elmore Leonard!

Bonus tips: Nothing to do with dialogue but just two tips to becoming a better writer.

1. Don’t show a “single tear coursing down the cheek” of a character. It isn’t dramatic; it’s a cliché. It’s a moronic cliché. Plus, it makes the reader wonder if the other tear duct is clogged or if only one tear shows a person with some kind of half-ass control over their emotion where they can control one eye but not both at the same time…

2. Don’t ever write a sentence like: I wonder if he’ll like me, she thought to herself. I mean… who else does a person think to other than themselves? Unless it’s a sci-fi novel and people can think to others…

These two things are my personal bugaboos in writing. I throw up in my mouth whenever I encounter these puppies! Sometimes, I do more than just choke up a bit of bile. At times, I’ve hurled chunks when encountering these in a student’s work… Just sayin’…

Thank you Les for this wonderful exercise. I am trying to twist Les’s arm for a Part Three on Monday, so here’s hoping :D.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

Les Edgerton is the author of HOOKEDTHE RAPISTTHE BITCH and others.

Winner for March is Daniel Occento. Please send your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. You can also choose to send a one-page query letter of five-page synopsis (limit 1250 words).


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  1. Oh, man…these two were great. And I’m going to use them right away. Thanks to you and Les..

  2. These two “seminars” on dialogue were terrific. Thanks for posting!

  3. You might want to read Penny Penniston as well. She’s very good at helping students understand how to create sub-text when writing dialogue.

  4. I loved the subtext exercise! Great article!

  5. Good Lord, I hope you don’t really throw up in your mouth. Wonderful tips. Thank you. Now put me in the hat, please!

  6. If I came right out and SAID Les’s dialogue instruction is the most concise and useful I’ve ever seen, I would miss an opportunity to use subtext. So I’ll just say “Thanks for the tips! Looking forward to Monday, but no pressure.”

  7. Great information! I have a scene coming up that will be heavy in dialogue so, this is perfect timing for this blog series. Looking forward to part three.

  8. “I thought to myself”? I catch this one in student writing all the time, usually in the same neighborhood as people with “smiles on their faces”. On what other parts of the anatomy would they wear smiles?

    “A single tear…?” Committed that one, myself!

    Glad Les Edgerton set me straight.

  9. Looking forward for the number 3 now 🙂

    I printed the 2 blogs, they are too important. I agree with you on the subtext… but it has to be well done as it can be confusing for the reader. I read many books where you couldn’t get the point — “What was he talking about?” — or, where you got angry as the dialogue was so badly done that you were nervously exhausted at the end of the page and had to make a big effort to turn the darn page.

    Dialogue is an art — which you seemed to have mastered, Les — and I am thankful that Kristen bribed you to come and talk to us about this important subject.

    In my growing up as an English writer. I have a lot to learn still, as writing in English is completely different — often — as writing in French… but I have good hope I will succeed.

    Thank you for posting such interesting and valuable information 🙂

  10. “Twin tears coursed from both eyes, since neither were clogged and Trudy had no real control over her emotions.” She thought. To herself. *ducking*

    Great post, will share!

    1. Bahahahahahahaha!

  11. Great post, Les, and thanks for sharing, Kristen! Great reminder of what dialogue needs to be about, and excellent example of how it’s done. This is a good exercise to do in a critique group, too.

  12. Good exercise. Loved the subtext in dialogue, stresses the point that good dialogue advances the plot on many levels. I agree about thinking to one’s self. Perhaps the distinction would be useful in a sci-fi book where a person could telepathically project a thought into someone else’s mind – then the distinction of thinking to Saul or thinking to myself would work. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  13. Fun. Dialog excercise was wonderful! I disagree with he single tear. We are all allowed a little cliche. It really isn’t about what bothers us, but rather hat bothers readers. There’s a time and a place for even that. I do agree with thinking to oneself… Very hard to thnk to others… Your blog alway makes me think…to myself.

  14. This is the best example of subtext I’ve seen. This one, along with yesterday’s post, will be linked on my blog this week. Great stuff!

  15. Horrible lag makes for missing letters. I apologize for not proof reading the above.

  16. That sounds like a typical male/female conversation – two different subjects, no communication. Well done.

  17. Great explanation of subtext.

  18. Really great exercise! I could hear this conversttion in my head and feel the tension. This really shows how great dialogue should work and how much I need to work on my own dialogue. Thanks….I think!

    • dinavidscuitee on April 5, 2013 at 11:49 am
    • Reply

    Thank you for the example. They explain sometimes more than words do.

  19. Hmm. I actually have a story coming up where characters might be able to think to each other, but I still can’t see using “I thought to myself.”

    I like your thoughts on subtext a lot. Very true-to-life.

  20. Subtext works for me when a man and woman love each other and they cannot just come out and they cannot say it in plain understandable common English. Knee jerk reactions of name calling to talking about someone else expressed in dialogue are ways of adding it and it will be assumed by others as “Info Dump”. I like being a moron writer with the tears dribbling down the cheeks or dripping from eye lids like two simultaneous leaky faucets. “Buckets of tears” is a personal favorite so if it is redundant then there are those reading my works unpublished in print form. “Emotional rollercoaster” is another. TY! Better work on my Time Travel Romance novelette so I can get started on my YA high school basketball championship novel. Dribbling might be redundant in the YA. Control of the basketball helps in winning championships.

  21. Interesting exercise, Les. And thanks for having him on your blog, Kristen. There is one thing I find real interesting about the comments here, and I’m not trying to put anyone down, but nobody answered the three questions at the end of the exercise. So, let me be the first. I think the root of what they were both taking about was money. The women wanted the man to be happy for their friends and the man wanted to be left alone to drink. (Beer). My thoughts! (Am I close, Les?)

    1. I’ll wait to see what others think before I reply, okay?

      1. Fair enough, Les. It seems that I managed to get the ball rolling.

  22. Writing subtext can be difficult. I know I’ve written a scene and felt like I did a good job making intimations without being obscure, but when someone else read it they didn’t get it at all. I think it’s important to put it in context. Also, when characters are acting out the lines, they can emphasize words and use tones of voice and facial expressions that add meaning.
    I thought the woman wanted a baby and the man thought they couldn’t afford it. Then the woman went on to nag about the man’s weight and drinking habits and by that time, he just wanted the conversation to be over.
    I’d love to hear the scoop on the intended subtextual message.

    • kurokami77 on April 5, 2013 at 7:05 pm
    • Reply

    I think the woman was hinting pretty strongly that she wants a baby. My guess is that the man was feeling stressed about that level of commitment – and not just monetarily. He said he stayed in the kitchen and didn’t see “it,” so he obviously has some serious emotional distance going on. I’m wondering if perhaps he hadn’t wanted her to see the baby, either . . . maybe he’d assumed (correctly) that she would get baby on the brain?

    1. That’s it!

  23. “I throw up in my mouth whenever I encounter these puppies! Sometimes, I do more than just choke up a bit of bile. At times, I’ve hurled chunks when encountering these in a student’s work …”

    Writers of serial killers and graphic murder mysteries with cannibalism cannot get that kind of reaction with their words on a novel. Maybe I should use the words during a forensic examination or before an explanation of a murder.

    “I wonder if he’ll like me, she thought to herself.” And Quinza continued to cut open the cadaver with a mini-chainsaw, when she realized that the victim on the table was the man who called her the other day for an evening out.

    • Lanette Kauten on April 5, 2013 at 8:09 pm
    • Reply

    I wish I understood what Les was talking about. All I know is my ex-husband used to get angry with me when I took what he said literally and people look at me strangely when I take them literally. If people don’t say what they mean, I don’t know how others can pick up on something else. How can I have my characters talk about one thing while thinking something else and expect readers to understand?

    1. I enjoy adding subtext in dialogues, but in reality I prefer pure honesty. I spend today believing I misunderstood names of ladies, which I seriously wanted a real relationship with back thirty years ago at college. Even back then I wanted to go to the campus library to look at a copy of a school yearbook to verify names. The person who told me names of women was telling me not to date them after telling me their names so he could have told me the wrong names intentionally and it was stored in my mind. I made a fool of myself calling those ladies a different name probably, but they never corrected me. I might get an E-mail from them because they found me on a Social Media and I will not know whom they are. I will think; it is one of those Spam “thangs” of “check me out” or someone trying to promote FACEBOOK.

  24. I really appreciate these posts, thanks Les.

  25. Great information. To me the man and woman were talking about their relationship. The woman wants to get an emotional response from the man to verify their closeness. The man wants to remain true to his belief that they have a good relationship and responds with humor and a compliment to her at the close. Thanks Les for the lesson. – John

  26. I assumed that Les wanted to hear how his example worked if it was used in a class. It’s been fascinating to see the various interpretations about the dialogue that readers have posted here. Reminds me that not only does the writer convey things in a scene, but the reader adds their own interpretation to the scene. Two readers could see this dialogue and come away with different interpretations. Oh, dialogue is tricky.

    Got a question on a different topic. If you are writing in first person through the eyes of a child? How do you deepen the point of view of a scene? – Is there a way to add descriptive depth and still have it be a child’s point of view?

    1. Heather, this is a great question! And, the answer is a resounding Yes! First, observe children when they talk to each other. Look at their comparisons. They’ve been uncorrupted at this point and haven’t learned cliches. They see the world through fresh eyes. A child will point at a fat man and say he looks like an ice cream cone. He’s visualizing the big chunk of ice cream at the top. But, the parent gets what he’s saying. That’s what you do. Create those very original comparisons that a child would do and that upon first glance don’t seem to make sense and upon a bit of reflection do, and you’ll have created a wonderful sense of place/setting. If you have access to a small group of children, sit ’em down and pull out pictures of a scene you want to write. Have them describe what items in the scene remind them of. What will happen is they’ll each begin to try to top the others and you’ll get some amazingly original descriptions. Use ’em…

      Hope that helps!

  27. Okay, folks–good takes, all! Kurokami nailed it the best. She wants a baby and he doesn’t. It’s that simple. It’s also a topic they’ve talked about in the past and so they use subtle digs at each other to reinforce their position. Kind of what we all do in real life… When I do this exercise in college classes, about 90% of the kids get it. For a subtext example, it’s fairly clear. But… 10% don’t. And, that’s as it should be. When you trust the reader’s intelligence to “get it” in a story, not everyone will get it. Nor should they. A good writer doesn’t write for everyone. If one tries to be something to everybody, he’ll be nothing to nobody. I’d urge every writer not to dumb down a narrative, which is what’s going on if everyone gets it. The best writing is a participatory exercise–the reader should have to do some work as well. Hemingway said it best when he said good writing is like an iceberg. We only “see” one tenth of an iceberg and nine-tenths are invisible as it’s below the waterline. The good writer supplies the skeleton and the reader provides the flesh. I’m talking here about “good” writing, not typing. Too often the work isn’t good because the writer has dumbed down the prose overmuch.

    Is that hard to do as a writer? Sure. It’s supposed to be hard. If writing was easy, anyone could do it. If anyone told you writing was easy, they either lied to you or they didn’t know what they were talking about. It’s hard. That’s why it’s so rewarding when you succeed. You worked for it!

    It’s also not a bad thing if you don’t get everything in a novel as a reader. Usually, that shows a writer who has some serious game. A good novel should make one think. A good writer doesn’t write for everyone. He or she writes for basically his or her twin–one who knows just about everything the writer does. That way, he’ll employ the kind of shorthand the best writers do and that means everything won’t be spelled out. That means that unless his literal twin in every sense reads it, most people won’t “get” every single thing in the story. And, that’s fine. That’s as it should be. The problem is that most writers won’t meet very many or even any of his real readers. Most writers real readers aren’t their neighbors, their family, their workmates or their writing group. Their readers will be in Des Moines, one in South Africa, six in NYC, three in Baton Rouge, et al. Thinking that your readers are those you interact with daily is usually a mistake and will lead to dumbed-down prose almost always. I’d strongly urge writers to write their story as if they’re sitting across from their best friend whom they’ve known all their life. Who’s seen the same movies, who’s the same age, same religion, same politics, etc. When you tell such a person a story, you leave out all the “explaining” and just tell the story. Someone eavesdropping will get most of it, but not all of it. And, that’s fine. That’s exactly as it should be.

    Always keep in mind that fiction isn’t real life. It has to be better than real life. In “real life” we soon find out it isn’t fair and often it doesn’t make sense. That’s one big reason people read fiction. Fiction has to be logical (within the framework of the fictive world created), while in real life, people are often illogical. Life is chaotic, while fiction can’t be and work. That doesn’t mean chaotic things can’t take place in fiction, but it does mean that the protagonist be logical within the framework of the story. I get students all the time who have their character do something entirely illogical in the story and when I ask them why they did so, they say, “Well, this actually happened.” It doesn’t matter. In real life, for instance, you may have this maiden aunt who had two suitors for forty years who always courted her every Saturday. Finally, she gives them both an ultimatum. She tells them both that she’s tired of this crap and that when they show up next Saturday, she’ll choose one of them to marry. When Saturday arrives, she instantly picks Bill over Jeff. Why? Well, Jeff had on a blue tie which was her least favorite color and Bill had a red tie on, which was her favorite.

    Do things like this happen in real life? Sure. All the time. But, they can’t happen in fiction because… well… fiction has to be logical. It’s because real life is chaotic, unfair, makes little sense at times, that we turn to fiction where it is fair, isn’t chaotic, and does make sense. We get out of fiction what we can’t out of real life.

    Those kinds of things can happen in nonfiction and memoir. Just not in fiction.

    I imagine I’ll get comments on this… 🙂 And that’s great. If I ever wrote anything that everyone agreed on I will have become a typist and not a writer… 🙂

    Blue skies,

      • Lanette Kauten on April 6, 2013 at 8:09 pm
      • Reply

      I get it now. She wasn’t really talking about one thing while thinking something else. She was hinting at her husband. That’s different from what I thought you were saying in the blog post.

    • Carol Newquist on April 6, 2013 at 9:57 am
    • Reply

    I have a difficult time be overly critical of others’ writing, especially judiciously applying the style parameters of consensus prose. I feel as though I’m applying a straight-jacket. My fourteen-year-old daughter is a writer. She doesn’t know it, but she is. And like most writers, she’s a creatively sensitive soul who can be squashed rather easily in her formative years when she doesn’t even fully realize yet that she has THE GIFT. This is not to say that covertly I am not objective and critical, because I am, and I fervently apply that objective criticism to myself to the extent it’s even possible. It’s a matter of scale and degree, and often what we perceive as objective and critical can be something entirely different.

    What saddens me is her current language arts teacher does not recognize her latent talent. She appears to be so consumed with the straight-jacket, the fungible rules that is, that she fails to see the rare diamonds in the rough. This is precisely what I am driving at here. How to provide proper feedback without shaping the budding creativity or stifling it altogether. I’m not sure there’s a broad-brush answer that applies equally in all cases. As humans, for the discriminating at least, we’re as varied as snowflakes on a fractal level, so a one-size-fits-all approach is futility.

    To me, as an avid reader what I appreciate most is the conveyance of an idea, no matter how that idea’s conveyed. I have read many published authors who applied the consensus rules diligently and efficaciously yet the story smoldered rather than blazed. The ideas lacked a certain dimension and I’ve wondered if it was due to an imbalance between the technical and the creative. If I’m consistently writing with a little rule devil on my shoulder looking over my back, my muse may not fully manifest, and let’s face it, that muse is what this is all about. What’s the point of writing otherwise? We write because we’re compelled to write, and that compulsion is our muse.

    Some of the flaws pointed to in this post wouldn’t necessarily spoil the barrel for me if the writer’s muse was on full display and the conveyance of ideas deeply resonated with me. In fact, if the latter manifests, I’m apt to overlook flagrant, or not so flagrant, flouting of the rules. That flouting can lead to new frontiers in writing, meaning new styles and unique patterns of expression. This should never be a static process. It’s not science. Creativity cannot be bridled, nor should it be.

    I understand you are teachers and this is what teachers do, but may I suggest a change in course. Rather than fitting budding writers to the mold, perhaps we can nurture the soil that enables a new crop of budding writers to break the mold and chart new courses. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful exercise in anarchy? Not that a strong muse could ever be truly bridled, but in this case, it is free to explore pristine awaiting pastures rather than led to a pasture that’s been picked so clean all that’s left is a few sprigs and sediment.

    Something to consider if you haven’t already. Please don’t take it the wrong way, it’s not meant to be personal.

    1. No offense taken whatsoever, Carol! You sound like a great mom and a very reasonable person. If you’d send me your email, I’d like to send you a ebook copy of my first craft book, FINDING YOUR VOICE, which addresses your concerns very precisely and which I think your daughter will find useful and encouraging. I’m really of the same opinion as you are about teachers, believe it or not, and you’ll see that clearly in this book. I’d address it here, but I think if you read this book and then, if you think it applies, pass it on to your daughter, I think you may have a different take on this kind of thing. My email address is butchedgerton at comcast dot net (all lower case). I think you’ll find it answers all of your concerns better than I can in the limited space here. I really think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Fair enough?

  28. WOW. I loved the dialogue exercise, and I came to the conclusion it was about having a baby. I like this idea for dialogue. But, I have to say your comment was an even better class. I would never have thought about fiction vs. non or memoir this way. Fiction has to be logical. That’s a lesson with depth I’d never really thought about.
    Thank you both for this series! I’m assuming Les will be back on Monday for a 3rd installment…I’m an optimist! 😉

    1. Thanks, Barbara. And, yep, Kristen has graciously allowed me to return even though I’m sure I’m wearing out my welcome!

      I didn’t have enough space to fully define “logical” in a literary sense. I kind of did when I said it had to be logical according to “the fictive world created,” but I know sometimes people read selectively and won’t see the disclaimer. Of course characters can act illogically in a “real world” sense, but as long as it fits the parameters of the story it works.

      Here’s an example of a character acting illogically that should always be avoided.

      There’s a movie that appears on rerun TV at times. There is a couple trapped in a new-fangled office building that shuts down on Friday evening and doesn’t open until Monday morning. A security thing. You can’t get in or out during that period. I forget why they’re trapped but it doesn’t matter. There’s a bad guy chasing them, trying to kill them. Your basic “chasey-fighty” movie. They run all over the building–up and down staircases, elevator shafts, etc., with the bad guy just steps behind them. About half or 2/3 though the movie, they run into this office space being remodeled. There are stacks of lumbers, etc., all over the room. They hide behind a pile of lumber and the man picks up a power drill. When the bad guy comes around the corner, the good guy whacks him on the head and knocks him out.


      Here’s where he turns illogical. The rule is that the protagonist should always make the choices that a real person of at least average intelligence would make, okay? Well, when I describe this plot to students, I stop and ask them what would a logical person do. The answers are always the same and should be. One will say they should kill the guy. Another person, who doesn’t like killing even bad guys, will say they should tie him up (there is rope and all kinds of stuff around), and wait until Monday and then turn him in. Another says, they should take turns guarding him and if he wakes up, just knock him out again. All logical answers.

      So, what did the screenwriter or director have these folks do? They have them drop the drill and run to another floor to hide out. The chase is back on.

      This is what we call an idiot plot. For morons. When this was shown in the theater (and it was) anyone of intelligence should have walked out and demanded their money back. It’s a (really bad!) plot contrivance to keep the story moving. Totally moronic and it’s so because the protagonist made a totally illogical move.

      It’s at this point the intelligent person starts rooting for the bad guy. These two morons may have sex and procreate and you know right now that their progeny is going to emerge from the low end of the gene pool…

      That’s an example of what I mean by having characters make illogical moves in fiction…

      Hope it helps! .

      1. That not only helped…it made me laugh out loud. This also explains why a person with half a brain can’t watch most TV offerings, and avoids crazy action flicks like the plague.

  29. Les, I’ve enjoyed your classes and love your illustration of what you mean by literary internal logic and I really wish this is something Hollywood would pay more attention to. It just happens too often, and it’s the sort of thing that kicks me out of the story instantly! Worse than bad dialogue! What you describe there is the logic of a plot situation…there’s also the logic of a character’s psychology. That can be more subtle and harder to comprehend, but that is also profoundly important. A story fails instantly when a character does something…out of character!

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you found it useful! Hollywood’s not apt to change. The demographic movies are geared to are teenaged boys (which is the lowest demographic for fiction and best for movies!), as this is the group that goes more than once to a film. And, then, the beancounters (Harvard MBAs) are the ones who direct content. Which is why we see the same movie, over and over. Mostly driven by the “values” on the screen–melodramatic images of helicopters, sex, explosions, etc. Things that play well on a 30-foot screen. I bet you’re like me–your friends are always saying, “Why can’t they make an intelligent adult movie?” Well, they can, but there’s no money in it. You and I and the other folks who want these movies will go if they’re offered. But… this is the big BUT… we’ll only go once, whereas teenaged boys will go multiple times to a movie they like. It’s why screenplays were shortened (as the ideal) from 120 to 90 pages. It wasn’t the shorter attention spans determining that–it was the fact that the theater could squeeze one more showing per day out of the flick and put more butts in the seats… result, more popcorn sales… which is where the real money is made for theaters. Distributors know this as do studios, so they want shorter movies mostly for that reason.

      I would present something for your consideration about your last remark. I understand what you’re saying, but would also offer another thought. I feel that too many times writers keep their protagonists perhaps too firmly within the character they’ve established. Often, it’s when that character does make a choice out of character that the story becomes even more dramatic. I’ll qualify that by saying that having a character depart out of character works if, upon reflection, the viewer/reader sees that it was, indeed, a logical choice–just unexpected. It’s kind of like what Flannery O’Connor described as a good ending as being one which was unexpected, but which, upon reflection, represented the best logical ending. It’s a tough way to define it, but I think it makes sense.

      Also, when a character acts “out of character” it should be foreshadowed and built up to that event, I think, so that the logic of his/her action makes sense. Acting out of character is how the character arc is achieved. Think of Thelma and Louise and how Thelma began as terrified of the gun and how at the end she was waving it around and firing it like she was at the O.K. Corral. Totally different character at the end than from where she began but it was foreshadowed by the obstacles she overcame and the big change was when she experienced “adult” sex with J.T. that allowed her to become an adult and be able to hold up the store, shoot out the tires, etc., which was a huge departure from her character at the beginning. Which reminds me… I’m writing a new craft book using T&L to inform fiction-writing techniques and it’s possible our buddy Ms Lamb may publish it. Am I letting secrets out of the bag, Kristen? If so… sorry!

  30. Writing dialogue is my favorite. I always struggle with alternatives for said or says though. I have a cheat sheet, but sometimes said just seems right.

  31. Great lesson here but l have enjoyed your commentary even more. Thank you so much for coming and sharing with us all.

    • Carol Newquist on April 7, 2013 at 11:00 am
    • Reply

    Les, thanks for the words. I will email you for that ebook. FYI, I’m a male. Carol Newquist is my nom de plume. It’s taken from a screen play turned into a movie directed by Alan Arkin. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a superb satire with fantastic dialogue. It never received high accolades, but I found it absolutely brilliant. Check it out when you get a chance and let me know.

    Below I have sketched out some dialogue per this exercise. As you can see, I’ve mixed the two types Les has discussed. I hammered this out in about half an hour. I might even put it in the novel I’m working on. Maybe. We’ll see.

    Henry: Who called?

    Zoe: Amy

    Henry: Yeah, what’d she have to say.

    Zoe: Not much. She’s in town so she thought she would drop me a line.

    Henry: A line? Did you save any for me?

    Zoe: Cute

    Henry: Why do people feel compelled to call when they’re in physical proximity? I mean, with cellular technological advances these days, you can call almost anyone at anytime for next to nothing, so what does it matter if they have a layover at an airport where one of their friends happens to live and they have no intention of seeing them?

    Zoe: I don’t know. It is weird that people do that. Maybe being in that location prompts a memory and it triggers the compulsion to reach out.

    Henry: Sounds plausible. Either way, it’s predictable…and annoying.

    Zoe: Everything annoys you, so that’s not saying much. I’m glad she called.

    Henry: She’s going to see you in several weeks anyway.

    Zoe: I know. I guess she’s getting excited. I am.

    Henry: Yeah, me too.

    Zoe: Funny. Shut up.

    Henry: What? I’m happy for you. Really, I am.

    Zoe: Shut up.

    Henry: I’m serious. I really am happy for you.

    Zoe: Amy asked if Chloe was still mad at her.

    Henry: How doe Amy know Chloe is mad at her?

    Zoe: I told her.

    Henry: That’s not cool. How do you think Chloe would feel if she knew you divulged that?
    Never let anyone outside the family know what we’re thinking again. Ever.

    Zoe: Okay, Don Corleone.

    Henry: Really. Chloe’s getting older, so this isn’t like talking about the antics of your five-year-old. She’s reaching an age where you can make it or break it. Trust is crucial. You must hold what she says in confidence unless she expressly indicates otherwise.

    Zoe: I know, you’re right. I wasn’t really thinking of it that way.

    Henry: It’s not a matter of Chloe still be angry at her, by the way. Chloe doesn’t like Amy, and this latest instance only serves to cement that attitude.

    Zoe: What do you mean?

    Henry: Chloe’s like me in this respect. You get so many chances with her and if with every chance you prove unworthy, you’re written off. It’s not nice, but there it is.

    Zoe: It’s true. I can’t argue with that.

    Henry: Didn’t you say Amy’s moving back to Boston in July?

    Zoe: She is.

    Henry: Then why is she here now?

    Zoe: To make arrangements for Jalil’s schooling. He’s going to be in public special education.

    Henry: Special Ed?

    Zoe: You know he’s had problems since he was born. He didn’t start talking until he was five, and even now he doesn’t say much.

    Henry: I wonder if this has anything to do with she and Massoud having a child so late. Both of them have always seemed to me to be ill-equipped to raise a child.

    Zoe: It’s possible, I suppose, but Amy mentioned that Massoud had issues when he was a child.

    Henry: I guess it could be hereditary, or a combination of hereditary and environment. Didn’t you say that for his first five years, Massoud’s mother and sisters effectively raised Jalil in the same manner Massoud was raised, waiting on him hand and foot, and catering to his every whim and fancy?

    Zoe: Yes, they did, and I think Amy is making that connection, although even with 20/20 hindsight I don’t think she would have acted any differently. She’s had to deal with the fallout of the first five years now that they’ve been in Europe separated from Massoud’s family for the past two years. It’s she and Jalil every day. She can’t pass the buck. Massoud is always at work. She said he leaves at seven in the morning and comes home at eight at night. He plays with Jalil for a bit, and she puts Jalil to bed and that’s that. Massoud doesn’t like to discuss Jalil’s problems and just leaves it to Amy.

    Henry: That’s healthy, but hey, they’re living in France and you’re going to visit them courtesy of a ticket on their dime all because of that bacon he brings home.

    Zoe: He’ll be retiring soon, so he’ll be able to spend a lot more time with Jalil.

    Henry: Massoud will be completely sucked dry by then. Have you seen him? He looks terrible. He’s unhealthy, decrepit……feeble almost. Like the partners when I was working at Price Waterhouse. They were used up and washed up by the time they retired. They had nothing left to give or offer. The life insurance actuaries know this. The average lifespan after retirement for people like this is less than ten years, often times closer to five. Naturally, those statistics don’t get printed in the front page news every day, otherwise people would quit their life-sucking jobs in droves like I did.

    Zoe: All true, but people die of starvation and malnutrition when they don’t have enough money to put food on the table.

    Henry: I didn’t know we were starving and malnourished?

    Zoe: We’re not, but at this rate we could be any day now.

    Henry: When you consider the state of the world, everyone could be starving and day now. What does that prove except you never know what tomorrow might bring?

    Zoe: At least Amy and Massoud have economic security.

    Henry: At what price? The dysfunction of their child and Massoud dead at age sixty? What then? Does Amy find a full-time Au Pair to wait on her fucked-up kid after Massoud is dead and buried while she travels the seven seas with her friends until she kicks off thirty years later? Gee, that’s not shallow, selfish and materialistic, is it?

    Zoe: Why does it always come back to this?

    Henry: I could very well ask the same question of you?

    Zoe: I don’t want that life, I’ve told you that a hundred times.

    Henry: Then come with me on our next journey and let’s leave that way behind. I’m ready to start our business when you are. I can’t do it for you or for us, we must do it together. You have to find the motivation within yourself, I can’t force you, and I won’t do it for you. We’ve discussed this so many times. It’s the only path left. We can’t continue to feed these vampires. We must reap the rewards of our dedicated initiative rather than allowing grifters to glide on its wake. It’s time. Please take my hand and come with me. Let’s take that first step together.

    1. Hi Carol and sorry to assume you were female! We have something in common. My name is Leslie and I get the same thing all the time! Most folks aren’t old enough to know that when it’s spelled Leslie, that’s the male version, while Lesley is the female version. Like many things in English, that’s changed… What’s really kind of grinding is that I’ve always hated my name and I’m a junior–named after my “dad.” I put quote marks around dad because last year, at the age of 68, I had DNA tests done with my sister (who turned out to be my half-sister) and discovered my “dad”… wasn’t. My mother had lied to me all my life and to compound the injury, she made me a junior and saddled me with a name I hate. If I could, I’d change first and last names, but at my age it wouldn’t work.

      One good thing about a name like that. It either makes you learn to fight or to run fast…

      Sorry, I can’t comment on your dialog as this isn’t the proper forum to do so. Hope you understand.

      Will be waiting for your email as I think the book will resolve a lot of issues for both you and your daughter. Hope so, anyway!

      1. “Leslie, that’s the male version, while Lesley is the female version.” It is one of the teachings to incorporate in, the word HE or SHE, so you give your important characters a gender. I forget to most of the time and I assume that the reader knows John is male and Joan is female. Little Kids asked; is the talking white squirrel a man or a woman? Some answered; the white squirrel is Danny so it is a guy.

  32. hmmm…. this is great insight material, I thought to myself. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

  33. This was awesome! Makes me think of how much more I can do with subtext in dialogue 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your expertise, Les!

  34. WONDERFUL example!!!

  35. Interesting exercise. I assume she was thinking of having a baby and he was thinking of how much they cost. Did I get it or am I way off base here?

    In creative writing class (granted, a long time ago) I was told that all dialogue must move the story forward, so superfluous or round-about dialogue such as this would seem to contradict this.

    I have to assume the type of writing influences this as well. When writing action novels, getting to the point would seem to be the goal of dialogue rather than dancing around the issue with subtext. Virginia Wolf would, of course, fits perfectly with subtext dialogue.

    Am I wrong?

  36. Thank you Kristen and Les for this 2part series. It’s a keeper. 🙂

  1. […] Les Edgerton Shows How to Write Amazing Dialogue–Part 2 AN EXERCISE | Kristen Lamb’s Blog […]

  2. […] Les mentioned in his lesson about dialogue, subtext is vital. It’s more than what’s said. This can only happen when 3-D characters […]

  3. […] Les Edgerton Shows How to Write Amazing Dialogue – Part 2 AN EXERCISE (warriorwriters.wordpress.com) […]

  4. […] A successful book requires attention to every detail. K.M. Weiland gives 17 steps to a reader-grabbing title, and Les Edgerton shows how to write amazing dialogue. […]

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