Formatting Dialogue

One of the blogs I follow is Read To Write Stories, by Michael Noll. It’s a blog dedicated to delivering ideas about how to write, and offering writing prompts and exercises to get the creative juices flowing.

Today’s post was all about dialogue, and how to make dialogue in your fiction move faster. As an example, he offers a story called Paper Tiger, by Liz Warren-Pederson. The way Warren-Pederson structures her dialogue is by having large blocks of it in a single paragraph. Take the following opening paragraph as an example:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said, and I said, “What the fuck? Where will I eat,” and she said, “I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me,” and I said, “What a fucking misery,” and she said, “That’s not what you said last night,” and I said, “Well, we weren’t under a microscope then,” and she said, “You worry too much,” which was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

Given how the author has set up the voice of the narrator, this works pretty well. And yes, it moves along at a zippy pace.

But does it move too fast?

Micheal Noll’s post it made me think about was the structure of dialogue in my own writing, and that of other writers whose narrator’s are telling the story. The book I’m currently writing is a first person narrative in the hard-boiled crime fiction genre. Given how fond I’m an of Robert B Parker’s Spencer series, my choice of subject matter is probably not surprising. Yet even as a write my novel, I’m trying to avoid a certain pitfall Parker often fell into. Take the following excerpt from Hugger Mugger:

Good morning,” I said, to let them know there were no hard feelings about them interrupting me.

“Spenser?” the man said.

“That’s me,” I said.

“I’m Walter Clive,” he said. “This is my daughter Penny.”

“Sit down,” I said. “I have coffee made.”

“That would be nice.”

I went to the Mr. Coffee on the filing cabinet and poured us some coffee, took milk and sugar instructions, and passed the coffee around.

When we were settled in with our coffee, Clive said, “Do you follow horse racing, sir?”

“No.”

“Have you ever heard of a horse named Hugger Mugger?”

“No.”

“He’s still a baby,” Clive said, “but there are people who will tell you that he’s going to be the next Secretariat.”

“I’ve heard of Secretariat,” I said.

“Good.”

“I was at Claiborne Farms once and actually met Secretariat,” I said. “He gave a large lap.”

In fourteen lines of dialogue, there are nine what I would call “he saids”, where the author inserts a “he said” or “she said” or “I said” to anchor you to who is speaking. This is a lot. It didn’t occur to me just how many this really was until I was talking to my mother about Spenser books. She likes to listen to the audio version, but she couldn’t do it with Spenser books because of all the “he saids”. Whereas, as a reader, I think we have a tendency to pass right over then, registering them in the barest way possible so that they don’t slow down the dialogue.

Now compare this to a book I just finished rereading this morning, The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway:

“Couldn’t we live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together?”

“I don’t think so. I’d just tromper you with everybody. You couldn’t stand it.”

“I stand it now.”

“That would be different. It’s my fault, Jake. It’s the way I’m made.”

“Couldn’t we go off in the country for a while?”

“It wouldn’t be any good. I’ll go if you like. But I couldn’t live quietly in the country. Not with my own true.”

“I know.”

“Isn’t it rotten?” There isn’t any use my telling you I love you.”

“You know I love you.”

“Let’s not talk. Talking’s all bilge. I’m going away from you and then Michael’s coming back.”

“Why are you going away?”

“Better for you. Better for me.”

“When are you going?”

“Soon as I can.”

“Where?”

“San Sebastian.”

“Can’t we go together?”

“No. That would be a hell of an idea after we’d just talked it out.”

“We never agreed.”

“Oh, you know as well as I do. Don’t be obstinate, darling.”

“Oh, sure,’ I said. ‘I know you’re right. I’m just low, and when I’m low I talk like a fool.”

I sat up, leaned over, found my shoes beside the bed and put them on. I stood up.

“Don’t look like that darling?”

“How do you want me to look?”

“How do you want me to look?”

“Oh, don’t be a fool. I’m going away to-morrow.”

“To-morrow?”

“Yes. Didn’t I say so? I am.”

“Let’s have a drink, then. The count will be back.”

Did you count them? That’s twenty-eight lines of dialogue, and only one “he said”. And while the structure is completely different then Warren-Pederson’s story, I find this dialogue moves just as quickly.

So which is the right one? I suppose that depends on personal preference. My gut tells me that Warren-Pederson’s structure would be simply exhausting for anything longer than a short story. Reading a novel in that format would leave me panting. Plus, in a structure such as this, the writer must absolutely include on a 1:1 ration a “he said” for each line of dialogue. One the other hand, Hemingway’s structure left me panting as mush as “Paper Tiger”, where I found myself grateful for the blocks of descriptive text at the end of each dialogue jag so that I could catch my breath. And Parker’s copious inclusion of all the “he saids” borders on distracting the reader and throwing them out of the story.

I feel that, for my own writing, there is a happy medium to be found in the number of “he saids” included in the story. Somewhere between one and nine…

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4 thoughts on “Formatting Dialogue

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  1. Interesting post, Scott. As to whether a novel could bunch dialogue into a paragraph, I’ll have to pay attention to the novels I’m reading. My sense is that you can only bunch a certain amount of dialogue. So, the examples you cite above couldn’t be bunched because they’re too long. What I’ve sometimes seen in novels is a movement back and forth between the two: a speaker in a conversation will say, “So and so said to me and then I said,” and then it jumps to the next speaker.

    1. Michael: I’ve definitely been paying more attention to how dialogue is craft these days, from terse lines that leave the page looking like a haiku journal, to long-winded rants that go on for a full paragraph, lasting three-quarters of a page long. I’m finding it interesting how writers choose to structure their dialogue and how their choice influences my reading and enjoyment of their work.

      That said, your post was designed to get people to work on the writing prompt, whereas I totally hijacked it to talk about structural differences in novels. Hope you don’t mind!

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