Episode 121: Don’t Say It

On November 14th, Kasie and Rex took on the art of great dialogue by mostly looking at bad dialogue. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Don’t Say It: The Don’ts of Dialogue


  • Join our community on Patreon
  • Dialogue concepts revisited
  • The Don’ts
  • How do you make dialogue work?
Photo by Trinity Kubassek on Pexels.com

Link to the Podcast

Segment 1

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We’ve done dialogue before but it’s been a really, really long time. This is Episode 121 and the last time we did dialogue was Episode 15. So 106 episodes ago. Two years. How far we’ve come!

Last week we did the Iceburg and talked a good bit about subtext. So today we’re going to focus the dialogue conversation on what’s not being said. Yay! More talking about Hemingway and Hills Like White Elephants 🙂

I wouldn’t normally repeat — even if it’s been two years — but I love this list of “types” of dialogue:

  1. Introducing key characters.
  2. Showing important conflicts between characters.
  3. For telling characters apart.
  4. Showing characters’ inner conflicts.
  5. Revealing plot details/points and building tension.

I like a greeting, to be sure, but let’s not make it boring. We need some exposition about the person, sure, but let’s not deliver the driver’s license detail. Dialogue can introduce key characters by giving us their voice first. In The Lords of Discipline, the first time we meet the Commandant, it’s his voice:

“Halt, Bubba.”

I had jumped when he let loose with his scream. I always jumped when he yelled at me. He knew it and enjoyed the fact immensely. I did not turn around to face him but merely stood at attention beside my car.

“Good afternoon, Colonel,” I said to Colonel Thomas Berrineau, the Commandant of Cadets.

“How did you know it was me, Bubba?” he asked, coming into my field of vision.

“I’d recognize your high-pitched castrato voice anywhere, Colonel. How was your summer, sir?”

“My summer was fine, Bubba. I could relax. You weren’t on campus. I dind’t have to worry about my niece’s virtue or plots against the Institute. Where did you spend your summer, McLean? The Kremlin? Peking? Hanoi?”

I love the implication of the Colonel’s castration. The banter back that McLean is a communist. It’s a fantastic show of the relationship within the confines of the discipline and hierarchy of the Institute and right off tell us McLean is a favorite but also a less-than-model Cadet.

When do you introduce a character with dialogue?

My book, After December, opens with dialogue. Brian’s dad apologizing. Then talking about Tony, then Mac, then Brian, all before mentioning himself again. And even then, just to say what he’ll do for Brian. We know early on his father’s in service. And later, when Brian attacks him for not being the right kind of support, we already know his father’s been more support to Brian than he’s willing to admit.

Segment 2

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Item #2 on the list above is “showing key conflicts between characters,”

So let’s talk about how conflict manifests in dialogue. (Another list, hell yeah!)

  1. Threaten.
  2. Tease.
  3. Argue.
  4. Wheedle.
  5. Cajole.
  6. Insist.
  7. Taunt.
  8. Demand.
  9. Interrupt.
  10. Lie.

We’re working a list within a list now. So those of you keeping track, consider this #2 A. Threaten. Threats are a good conflict-creating dialogue. How realistic are they?

Tease — I like this because it can be misconstrued by the characters and the reader alike.

Argue — or contradict what was said before. I like this, too. It can be verbal, it can be body language, but any time you have a fight in dialogue it raises the stakes. Because each statement must be bolder than the last.

Wheedle — I had to look this one up. It means to use flattery or coaxing to convince someone to do something. The conflict is in the resistance to the wheedling.

Cajole — similar to wheedling? It’s about trying to convince someone to act against their instincts, their duty, to follow their real desires, despite consequences, gather ye rosebuds and all that shit.

Insist and Demand are two of a kind — persistence to wear someone down and demanding to convince them they have no choice. 

Taunting is a little like teasing except it implies the speaker knows something the listener does not. It’s more subtle.

Interrupt — we know this creates conflict because it flusters the listener. Attacking with interruptions shifts the conversation, it’s a power play, it redirects and throws the victim off balance. 

Lie — this is my favorite with a first person narrator. Say one thing. Admit, in narration — to the reader only — that it’s a lie.

Segment 3

One segment to get into the other three:

  1. For telling characters apart.
  2. Showing characters’ inner conflicts.
  3. Revealing plot details/points and building tension.

Before we have to move into the “How” segment.

Use dialogue to tell characters apart. Maybe this is related to a conversation about dialogue tags and do you need them? Can you tell the characters apart?

Use dialogue to show the characters’ inner conflict. For this, I have an example:

This was the point where I planted the seed that soon bore such unexpected and wonderful fruit in my life. I said, “Why don’t you move here. Quit everything.” There was a friendliness between us that made me worrilessly continue: “Clean your slate. Think life out. Lose your unwanted momentums. Just think how therapeutic it could be and there’s a bungalow right next to my place. You could move in tomorrow and I know lots of jokes.”

“Maybe I will,” she said, “maybe I will.”

It’s from Generation X by Douglas Coupland and it’s such a fantastic text. So many elements I wish had stood through the canon, had earned literary respect. But, anyway, the dialogue is obnoxiously good.

What does our narrator struggle with? Commitment, clearly. He tells her there’s a bungalow next door. He says he knows jokes, like this will be a farce, a laugh. It’s casual.

And she, “maybe” is a non committal response, repeating it only tells us she wishes she was saying something else.

Ugh, insert “burn my own work” mantra here.

Finally, use dialogue to reveal plot or to build tension. Yes. Obvy.

This blog talks about letting the characters talk about what they’ve done instead of telling us what they’ve done. And talk about what they will do instead of showing us them doing it. This can be helpful to skip over long, procedural things like driving from place to place, walking up a front walk or ringing a doorbell.

I like this device, too, for revealing exposition. My favorite Netflix vampire show (The Vampire Diaries) is awesome at this. Early in the episode, one character will say to the other, “I’m not the one who insisted we travel all the way to North Carolina to confront your birth mother who’s also probably a vampire.” Genius.

Real people don’t talk that way. True. But these aren’t people. They’re characters.

Segment 4

So how do you do it?

The Jericho Writers (and bloggers everywhere) want to give you advice on this, for real. Here’s the link and here’s the list:

  1. Keep it tight and avoid any unnecessary words
  2. Move the action of the scene forward
  3. Keep it oblique, where characters never quite answer each other directly
  4. Reveal character dynamics and emotions
  5. Keep speeches short
  6. Ensure characters use their own voice
  7. Add intrigue
  8. No small talk
  9. And remember, interruptions are good

So let’s start with the adjective “tight” because sometimes seasoned writers tell novices to “tighten this up” and they don’t know what we mean. Dialogue like this (this link):

“Jake, this is Jody. Jody, Jake.”

“Oh, howdy, Jake, nice to meet you.”

“Same to you, Jody. Isn’t this a great party?”

“Sure is, and how about this fantastic weather we’ve been having?”


This can be summarized with “Jake and Jody were introduced and exchanged pleasantries.”

Or, you could write something more engaging.

Before I could introduce them, Jake took Jody’s hand, brought it to his lips and said, “Enchante,” and when she responded, “Enchanté, mon nom este Jody,” he beamed. “Charmante.” This had exhausted his French, but I waited to see how long before he’d admit it.

Dialogue that is procedural — what we’re going to do and when, how to get from here to there, something the characters all know — is boring.

We can work through the rest of the list.

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