The problem with dialogue.

The whole point of this blog is that I am using it as an aid to writing a book. It’s going swimmingly. I have a plot laid out, and am slowly but surely creating a whole new world for it to take place in. I am getting to know what my main characters will be like, and how they will drive the plot forward. But that leads me straight into my first (and biggest) stumbling block. They are, at some point, going to have to talk to each other.

It’s easy enough to decide what they need to say to each other. It’s how they say it that keeps me awake at night. Dialogue in books is nothing like dialogue in real life. In real life, conversations are punctuated with nods, grins, frowns, grunts, and vacant stares into the distance which are supposed to tell your companion that you want them to go away (this is a skill I myself have never mastered- they just keep rattling on). In books, the characters will generally talk politely with one other person. Each will wait ‘til the other is done before taking their turn.

They may, occasionally, nod, or smile, or laugh. They will not, however, interrupt at the funniest part of each other’s stories, or suddenly veer off in a different direction because “god, you won’t believe what Shirley said about Bob yesterday”. If you ever heard two people talking to each other like they do in books, you would think they were autistic.

I’m going to have to learn how to do this from scratch. I can find no inspiration from my own life. I used to have conversations with people all the time. Then I got a job and had children. Now I may, every now and then, have a normal conversation with my wife. These rare moments usually take place after a long day at work, and the daily ordeal of getting the children bathed and asleep. By that point, my wife and I are generally suffering the early effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s hard to have a meaningful discussion when you are both quietly weeping.

A quiet evening in.

I have tried to piece together how people talk to each other from my daily life, but it’s not going very well. Work conversations can never be inspiring enough for great, or even adequate, fiction. I sell books, so if I ever need one of my characters to be a vicious old shrew holding me personally responsible for the fact that the book she wants is, and I quote, “too heavy”, I’ve got that covered.

Conversations with friends these days are no help either. We used to sit up ‘til the early hours, sorting out the problems of the world. Now we stand around the braai (barbeque), drinking beer and trying to find out what’s happening in each other’s lives, but never quite getting there because little Johnny over there is hitting Suzie with a spade, and Billy needs to wee. Again.

My family has always been a rich source of conversation. Unfortunately, these conversations are completely unwriteable. There are six of us, and we have grown up seeing talking to each other as a competitive sport. Whoever talks loudest and longest gets to steer the conversation, but this is no impediment to others talking at the same time. The first time my wife was exposed to my family in full force she cried, because she thought we were all fighting. We had had the best time we’d had in months.

Each of us has a spouse now, and they are slowly learning how it’s done, but the children all seem to have been born with the required gene. There are eight of them. Cousins get involved too. Family occasions now involve a minimum of eighteen people talking at once. It makes for a fantastic afternoon out, but until someone works out how to write in surround sound, is useless as a reference for writing.

Family lunch at my parents’ house

Which brings me back to my own small brood. This is how my daily conversation with my wife goes:

“Hi, how are you?”

“Good. You?”

“Good. How did the day go? Anything interesting happen out there?”

“I AM A MOM! YOU ARE THE BABY!” Oh look. My daughter seems to have joined the conversation.

“Not really, although someone did use a xylophone to…”

“MOOOOOOOM! YOU HAVE TO COME AND SEE THIS” Ah. My son has decided to join our little chat. From two rooms away.

“Did you just say a xylopho…”


Yes, I just…”


“I’ll just talk to you later then.”

Edifying stuff. The Booker Prize is mine for the taking. Maybe I should try to focus on one-on-one conversations. Generally these only take place at bedtime. First, there is my three year old daughter:

“Ava, it’s time for bed.”

“NO! I don’t want to!”

“You have to go to bed because you have school tomorrow.”

“I want mom to put me to bed”

“No. I’m putting you to bed. Let’s go and choose a story.”

“I want these stories!” This is said while taking seventeen books off the shelf.

“No. You can have three stories”

“Stop saying those ugly words to me.”


“Stop saying those ugly words.”

“What ugly words? You mean “No”?”

“Yes. You go away. I only want mom.”

“Fine. I’m going to go and live in Zambia then. You go and call your mom.” This last may seem like an odd sort of thing to say, but it seems to work, and story time can begin.

Zambia. Beloved wonderland of the little children, and bulk exporter of copper.

The actual process of going to sleep makes this all seem like a tea party. Suffice to say the main phrases used here are “I’m not comfy”, “I don’t know how to sleep”, “No”, ”I want more tea”, “You go away!”, and curiously enough “Don’t go away. Ever.”

It’s not the sort of stuff you find in the classics. Perhaps I should base all of my dialogue on my eight year old son’s bedtime:

“Luke. Time for bed”

“Aww maaan!”

“If you don’t go to bed now you will never play on my iPad again”


Hemingway would be proud.

12 thoughts on “The problem with dialogue.

  1. Tamarai says:

    Excellent. Thank you for brightening my day.

  2. Marcia says:

    Make that “feelings OF dialog angst,” please. Dang missing Edit button!

  3. Marcia says:

    I’m wearing neither fishnet stockings, nor a wedding dress, and the fire hydrant is aaalll the way out by the curb. However, I know funny dialog when I read it, and I would suggest your feelings dialog angst are totally unfounded. You can definitely write hilarious dialog. And all you have to do to write SERIOUS dialog is…stop being so dang funny. See? Easy-peasy!

  4. Marytg66 / 1Real Girl says:

    I don’t write novels but I read plenty. I wouldn’t know where to begin in regards to dialogue either. I suggest take a class. Find one on line… Media Bistro offers plent or my number 1 resources for all things I want to learn are the dummy and idiot guides. I love them. Right now I’m reading the idiots guide to comedy writing. Next up will b journalism. Technique. You’ll get there. Keep writing.

    • 23thorns says:

      Thank you kindly. On a completely unrelated note, am I seeing that your avatar is a foot?

      • Marytg66 / 1Real Girl says:

        Yes it is. Actually I am wearing a wedding dress with black fishnet stocking and combat boots. I am leaning against a fire hydrant in NYC.

        It sums me up. 1Real Girl.

  5. pussonalamp says:

    I would like to more-than-like this, to liker or even likest it. I would like to give it flowers or take it to lunch or give it a mix tape or something. I fear that the caption to your map of Zambia may exhibit signs of genius.

  6. Amy Duncan says:

    Loved this and can so relate to it! Thanks for visiting my blog, too!

  7. Bambi Lynn says:

    You’re a great story-teller…I’m off to the next one!

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