Columns > Published on January 25th, 2023

Dialog Journals and Writing Good Dialog

Here’s a quick quote from an interview with Jason Isbell. Isbell is talking about seeing Garth Brooks live right before Garth got huge:

I remember in 90, 91, I saw Garth at the state fair for a dollar right before the potbellied pig races, and I think “Friends in Low Places” came out like a week later. So it was–He probably never played in daylight again after that.

“He probably never played in daylight again after that.”

That’s a phrase I’d never heard before, but you instantly know what it means, right? It describes fame in a specific, interesting way. Much better than, “I saw Garth Brooks right before he was famous. Maybe a week later, he was huge.”

Phrases like "never played in daylight again" motivated me to start up what I call a dialog journal, and I’d like to encourage other writers out there to do the same.

How It Works

It can be a notebook, a fresh index card you take off a pile every day and slip into your pocket. The point is to write down snippets of things people say, anything spoken aloud that's worth writing down.

How It’s Different

The idea isn’t to build a bank of phrases that you can rob whenever you need something cute. You’re not necessarily writing these things down so that you can return to them later. You’re writing them down to get a feel for the way people speak, for translating real talk into written words.

It's not about the finished journal, the final product. It's about the act of producing that product so you can create realistic dialog that's worth reading whenever you need to.

You’re practicing your listening, building an ear for the way people really talk.

You’re practicing writing dialog, turning speech into words.

Habits

Instead of breathing personality into your characters by telling me their age in years, their eye color, or the kind of job they have, give me one piece of memorable dialog.

If you’ve got a blank notecard in your pocket every day, you’ll get in the habit of finding something to fill it with.

You’ll listen to the way people talk, you’ll listen to the people behind the desk at the dentist’s office, even if they’re chatting with each other about ordering more salted caramel flavored tooth polish (this is a thing, it’s weird).

Saying It Wrong

Take special note of people saying things wrong, and get used to the fact that people say things wrong all the time.

You know that “I COULDN’T care less,” is the correct way to say it, but would your character be more likely to say, “I COULD care less?”

Instead of correcting someone who says something wrong, write it down. Celebrate it. Get used to the way it feels. DON’T correct it as you write it down. Write it down exactly as it was spoken.

Because if nobody in your book says things wrong, that book better be taking place in the staff area of Harvard’s English Department or some such shit. Good luck making that an electrifying read...

Mission: Smalltalk

Dialog journaling does two impossible things: it eases social situations for the nervous, and it makes smalltalk interesting.

When I go to a party where I don’t know anyone, I try to go in with a writerly mission. I want to get someone to tell me an interesting story. Something about themselves or a relative, SOMETHING beyond “So, what do you do for a living?”

A good mission, especially if you’re not comfortable in social situations, is to grab a piece of dialog for your journal. Because even if the content of the evening's chatter is pretty dull, SOMEONE is going to say SOMETHING in a way that'll light you up.

What Counts As Dialog

Anything spoken that’s not planned out and not part of a performance.

What Doesn’t Count As Dialog

Anything written. This includes speeches and the like, even if the speech seems fairly natural. If there are bullet points, it’s not really dialog, it’s writing.

Anything transcribed. This is always a little sanded down, not quite original. 

Anything performed, even if it’s off the cuff. Performance has a purpose outside of just saying something, and that purpose taints the dialog.

Audiobooks definitely don’t count. Podcasts…I would say if the dialog is casual, not in the mode of an edited narrative, not meant to elicit a laugh, it can count.

Some pre-written dialog can be really good, but it’s like birdwatching at the zoo: there’s faux naturalism, and it’ll never hit quite the same.

A Last Plea

A specific phrase, saying something wrong, just the way it trips you up when someone says, “The driveway needs shoveled,” can give us a lot more character than telling me how tall someone is.

Instead of breathing personality into your characters by telling me their age in years, their eye color, or the kind of job they have, give me one piece of memorable dialog. One phrase they always say wrong. Give me that they grew up saying “snerbert” instead of “sherbert.”


Get Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee at Bookshop or Amazon

Get So to Speak: 11,000 Expressions That'll Knock Your Socks Off by Shirley Kobliner (Author), Harold Kobliner PhD (Author) at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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