October 25, 2023
Phew. Two Busy Weeks! Did an event for a private club in NYC, then whipped home and repacked my suitcase for the Surrey International Writers Conference, in British Columbia (that’s in Canada). Got home from that yesterday, and now I’m in California (not working—taking a wee break).
Anyway, since some folk here seem interested in the nuts and bolts of writing (beyond just enjoying the story), I thought I’d maybe post basic notes for the Dialogue workshop that I taught at the conference, followed by one of the pieces (of Book Ten) that I used as an example of same.
Like a scene, a good line of dialogue often has more than one purpose. It should have at least one.
You don’t need to know the purpose as you write, but when you read over something you’ve written, you should be able to point to any given element—be that a line of dialogue, a descriptive phrase, a plot point—and say why it’s there.
What are the usual purposes of dialogue?
- To reveal character
- To develop or reveal relationships.
- To create or relieve tension.
- To adjust pacing.
- To move the story ahead.
- *To reveal information that a character needs to know. (Don’t do it only because the reader needs to know.)
* Ideally, dialogue that does this should have another purpose, too.
II. PRINCIPLES: Quick “Rules” for the use of Dialogue:
- Use short sentences.
- Use short paragraphs.
- Make it clear who’s saying what (dialogue tags).
- Don’t go overboard in avoiding “said.”
- Don’t use dialogue to give background information.
- Pay attention to who’s talking, and who they’re talking to.
- Use idiom, dialect, characteristic interjections, etc. to distinguish character, geography, social class, time period,etc.
- Balance dialogue vs. narrative – avoid long stretches of uninterrupted dialogue.
- Don’t let characters talk pointlessly – they only talk if there’s something to say.
- Don’t interrupt an action sequence with dialogue.
- Dialogue doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Dialogue is contradictory, in that it can either speed up or slow down a passage.
III. Common Situations in which there’s Something to Say:
- New character joins scene
- Something remarkable happens
- News is brought or observed
- Plotters confer
III. Variant: Interior Monologue
IV. Variant: Multiple Voices
- Tight grip on single POV (point of view).
- Follow the chief action of the scene.
- Quick asides to anchor the narrator.
V. Formatting Issues – Some Things are “Style,” and Some Things are Just Wrong.
- Dashes, Commas, Semi-colons, etc.
Now, I’m not going into this in detail (it took me 90 minutes to explain it in person <g>), but I’ll answer some questions if y’all have any.
Now for some dialogue…
“Three Musketeers” (Book Ten)
[Possible spoilers below, but not big ones, I don’t think…]
[Excerpt from Book Ten (Untitled), copyright © 2023 Diana Gabaldon]
“What are you thinking?” I asked. “I know it’s about William.”
“Oh, aye?” Jamie glanced at me, mouth curled up at one side. “And what do I look like if I’m thinking of William?”
“Like someone’s handed you a wrapped package and you’re not sure whether it’s something wonderful, or a bomb.”
That made him laugh, and he put an arm around me and pulled me in close, kissing my temple. He smelled of day-old linen, ink and hay, and the dribble of honey that had dried down the front of his shirt, like tiny amber beads.
“Aye, well, one look at the lad and ye ken he’ll explode before too long,” he said. “I only hope he doesna damage himself doing it.”
He shrugged comfortably.
“I’m no very breakable, Sassenach.”
&lodquo;Says the man with four—no, five bullet holes in his hide, to say nothing of enough surgical stitching to make a whole crazy quilt. And if we start counting the bones you’ve cracked or broken…”
“Ach, away—I’ve never broken anything important; just the odd finger. Maybe a rib, here or there.”
“And your sternum and your left kneecap.”
He made a dismissive Scottish noise, but didn’t argue.
We stood for a bit, arms about each other, listening to the sounds outside. The younger children had fallen asleep under bushes or in their parents’ wagons, their happy screeching replaced by music and the laughter of the dancers, the clapping and calls of those watching.
“He came to me,” Jamie said quietly. He was trying to sound matter-of-fact, but he’d stopped trying to hide what he was feeling.
“He did,” I said softly, and squeezed his arm.
“I suppose there wasna really anyone else he could go to,’ he said, off-handed. “If he canna find his grace, I mean, and he couldna very well talk to anyone in the army, could he? Given that….” He stopped, a thought having struck him, and turned to me.
“D’ye think he knows, Sassenach?“
“About—what he said. The… threat to Lord John. I mean—” he elaborated, seeing my blank look, “does he ken that it’s no just a canard.”
“A—oh.” I stopped to consider for a moment, then shook my head with decision. “No. Almost certainly not. You saw his face when he told us about what Richardson was threatening. He’d still have been scared—maybe more scared, if he knew it wasn’t an empty threat—but he wouldn’t have looked the way he did.”
“Both. But anyone would be, wouldn’t they? Under the circumstances.”
“They would. And…determined, would ye say?”
“Stubborn,” I said promptly, and he laughed.
“A bomb for sure, then.”
The air had cooled with the setting of the sun. Now it was full dark and the mountain breathed, a lithe sense of spring in an air filled with night-blooming flowers and the resins of resting trees. It would be different on the coast. Still fresh, but strong with fish and seaweed, tar and wood and the tang of salt in everything.
I might have one more mountain night like this, maybe two or three, but likely not more. I breathed deep, resolved to enjoy it.
“When?” I asked.
“If it were up to William, we’d already be gone,” Jamie said, drawing me closer. “I told him I must think, but meanwhile, preparations would be made; no time will be wasted.” He glanced toward the window. “With luck, Brianna and Roger Mac will have him drunk by now; he’ll sleep sound. He kens he’s safe,” he added, softly. “Or I hope so, at least.”
“I’m sure that he does,” I said, also softly, and rubbed his back, the scars invisible under his shirt. His children, his grandchildren. If only for a moment, here, together, in the place he had made.
There was a break in the music, though the air was still full of talk and laughter. That died down now, though, and there were a few moments of silence before the faint sounds of a guitar drifted up from the distant bonfire. Then two voices, one rough and one smooth, weaving a song.
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme….
My heart squeezed tight and so did my throat. I’d never heard Bree and Roger sing together. They must have done this before, though, in private; perhaps as an exercise to strengthen Roger’s voice.
We stood in silence ‘til the song was over, listening to magic. I looked up at Jamie’s face, soft in the candlelight, his eyes far away. He didn’t hear music, as such, but I knew he felt the song anyway.
As it ended in a rumble of shouts and applause, he cleared his throat and reached for a cup of water on the wash-stand.
“I wasna sure which of them to take,” he said, after he’d drunk. “Roger Mac or Young Ian, I mean. But it will have to be Ian; Roger Mac’s needed here.”
“You, William and Ian. The three bloody Three Musketeers, is it?” I said, trying to make light of things. “What am I, then, D’Artagnan?”
“Who’s D’Artagnan?” He gave me the sort of wary ‘now what’ look that was his response to most of the random observations made by the time-travelers in his family.
I enlightened him, ending with “All for one, and one for all,” brandishing my hairbrush like a sword.
He stared at me.
“You don’t think that’s romantic?” I lowered my weapon.
“It sounds like a good way to get yourself killed. Any venture needs a leader, aye? And ye’re not going,” he concluded firmly. “The Ridge needs you as much as it does Roger Mac, and ye ken that perfectly well.”
I stepped back a little, and ran my gaze slowly over his body, from crown to boot-sole, lingering on his left knee, and back up.
“I do,” I said. “But you need me more, and you ken that perfectly well. Besides, there’s Lord John. God knows what may have been done to him by the time you rescue him. Freedom won’t do him—or William—much good if he dies on you, will it?”
Selected Facebook comments:
Diana: Teachers do not know everything, and (speaking just personally), the only college-level English instructors who taught me anything were the two who insisted that everyone write something, every week.
Bonnie D.: Diana-Could you elaborate on formatting issues that you consider wrong vs style, with regard to Vb-‘dashes, commas, semi-colons, etc?’ Thanks!!
Diana: I think I probably put that in (I first wrote this outline ten years ago or so, and the rules don’t really change <g>) as the result of judging story contests in which people obviously didn’t realize the purpose of a comma (I recall One Woman whose entry was absolutely littered with commas, put in anywhere for no evident reason. I mentioned this to her in my comments, and she explained that she just rests her little finger on the comma key and hits it while thinking. Evidently it didn’t occur to her to go back and remove her thoughtful interpolations,,,)—and had obviously never heard of a semi-colon, but would put dashes in where the semi should have been.
Debby: My husband just started reading Outlander and he loves your writing style! The attention to detail amazes him. I shared that you are highly educated and do a lot of research and work with researchers to get the history and other information just right. I think he is starting to understand why Outlander is such a force! Thanks again for all you do for the fans! Looking forward to the next installment of your amazing writing.
Diana: Actually, no, I don’t work with researchers; I do all my own research—largely because I wouldn’t be able to tell the research assistants what to look for. But I do try to get it right, as much as possible.
Jordan S: Thank you for the tips on dialogue! I had a question about accents and dialects. As you wrote a book set in Scotland when you weren’t living there, what was the research process like for you when looking at the accent and dialects of the time? Do you have any quick research tips, such as helpful sources?
Diana: Basically, I read anything I could get my hands on, written by a Scot. Also got CD’s of Scottish bands who did folksongs (you get a lot of “old” language from those, and if it’s a live recording, you can hear the band bantering with the audience and each other). (I wrote OUTLANDER mostly pre-internet.) I watched BBC programs and picked out the Scottish accents <g>, and whenever I was at an international scientific conference, I’d have my ears pricked for British accents (of any kind) and go talk to those speakers.
Ellen CG: Loved it. Two things I noticed: have Claire explain “canard”. I know canard means duck in French and think that Jamie might be trying to say “wild goose chase”, so I wouldn’t likely look it up. I did, and it fits, but my initial interpretation is different.
Next, after the lovely description of the mountain air, it was a bit of a shock to discover they were inside with his glass on the wash stand. So the scene wasn’t clear to me in this excerpt. (although it might have been set earlier and just wasn’t part of this section.)
Diana: No, there’s another definition of “canard”—it means a false rumor, usually generated for the purpose of ruining someone’s reputation—which is what Claire’s delicately referring to. But you’re right, I should figure out a way for that to be explained—or find a better word.
Sandy WS: Great tips. I especially like the one that says make it clear who says what. I struggle when I. In middle of important dialogue and now I don’t know who is talking because there is no longer a reference to she said or he said in a long section of dialogue. Stick a reference or name in there just to keep it clear. It slows me down when I have to go back and try to figure it out.
Diana: Yeah, if you want to avoid repeating “said” (for whatever reason), you can use a bit of body-language: “You’ve never cared what I did—why now?” He turned abruptly, because the phone on the counter had begun to ring.
(That kind of thing also gives you a quick means of either changing the direction of the conversation, or propelling the story onto a new tack-depending on who’s on the other end of the phone call….)
Betty K: Thank you again for another wonderful excerpt during Droughtlander. I always love it when you bring references of the future into Jamie’s life. I can picture and almost hear Roger and Brianna singing Scarborough Fair and comparing Jamie, Ian and William to the Three Musketeers was perfect. Roger would have never have fit into that character. And last, I would like to wish you and your family a Blessed and Happy Holiday season
Diana: Actually, versions of the “Scarborough Fair” ballad were known all through the 18th century; that’s why they’re not singing “Twist and Shout”…
Liz J: I’ve written a few books… one without an ending because I don’t want to ruin it, and one that is finished but I am embarrassed because I think people will think it’s dumb… and a few “stragglers” started off strong but lost their steam.
Diana: Well… how will you ever know whether people think the ending is bad or that people will think the whole book is dumb, unless you let them read it?
(Mind you, giving up is a well-known method of self-protection, but the trouble with it is that you never get anywhere.)
Tarri S: #4 – don’t go overboard in avoiding said.
I try and avoid ‘said’ like the plague because when I read over a piece, it “feels” like I’ve mentioned it (see what I did there) a hundred times.
So, is it not as obvious as it feels like?
BTW, love this post.
Diana: No, “said” is basically an invisible word; it’s so common (and short <g>) that people really don’t notice it when they read it. (Mind, sometimes “said” can be obtrusive, if you add it to every single sentence, but usually you wouldn’t.)
I put that bit in because a LOT of teachers give out lists of alternatives to “said” and urge their students to use those. This leads to people “averring” things, or “stating” things (I know one very well-established novelist who does this all the time and he drives me crazy). And then there’s the romance novelist (name withheld) whose hero went around “gritting” his dialogue … I mean, don’t. <g> “Said” works really well under most circumstances.
Now, if someone actually shouts, calls, screams, squeals, etc., it’s totally kosher to do so. But if they’re just talking? Nah.
Judy H: I hope that book 10 will be out while I’m still living, please.
Diana: I think that’s kind of more up to you, than me. <g>
Tina B replied to Judy H and Diana: love your wit! Especially after having to see comments like this 30K times. Have a beautiful Sunday!
Painting above is “The Sword Dance” by David Cunliffe, 1853. Public domain, posted on Wikimedia.
Note: The outline on dialog was posted on Diana’s website in 2004 as “The Cannibal’s Art – Dialogue (Workshop Outline).
This discussion and excerpt were posted by Diana on her official Facebook page on October 17, 2023.