Communication Breakdown

Ironically, it’s often in the ways conversation breaks down that you can best lend verisimilitude to your dialog…

This is the teaser for today’s post, contributed by David Corbett, who’s here to talk about dialogue. It’s an essential part of storytelling, and to be successful, it has to be realistic. But in truth, dialogue is messy; it’s rambling and self-centered, and doesn’t always end up sharing what’s meant to be conveyed. I’m so glad David is here today to share some techniques for how to do it right…

It’s often said that the writing of dialog requires reading, not listening to actual conversation. This is because real speech suffers from a variety of pitfalls—pointless digressions, mindless nattering, and the twitchy insertion of um, like, you know, and other verbal tics.

But one can’t expect to create realism while straying too far from reality, either.

Ironically, actual speech often proves most instructive for dialog purposes when it breaks down, usually because the speakers are at cross-purposes.

Since your characters are contesting, blocking, countering each other’s goals, there is often a halting, stop-and-start quality to dialog that beginners routinely miss. Remember that each character has her own objective in each scene. Rather than respond to the first character, the second character may press her own point, and it may have little or nothing to do with what the first character tried to get across.

A great deal of bad dialog is either dueling pronouncements or a kind of verbal tennis, in which each volley gets answered by the next. This soon becomes labored and artificial, like the singsong back-and-forth between a teacher and her star pupil.

Remember that people cut each other off, they don’t listen, they talk over each other. The result: truncated sentences, tangents, non sequiturs. If used judiciously, these tactics can provide a sense of realism. Used to excess, they quickly seem affected—worse, boring.

A few specific techniques that can enhance a sense of realism—if used wisely—include:

Changing the subject (or answering a question with another question): This is a principal way for one character to ignore what the other said, either because he has something more pressing he wants to talk about or he’s trying to avoid the implications of what the first speaker is saying. The new tack in the conversation becomes an obstacle the first speaker has to overcome to continue pursuing the conversational objective and not get sidetracked or stonewalled.

Giving unsolicited advice: When one character is trying to get a point across, having the other give him unwanted advice feels like being ignored—with “the best of intentions.”

Topping the other person’s story: Instead of just ignoring what the first speaker said, the second speaker minimizes it. “That’s nothing, you should’ve seen what happened to me.” In one stroke, the second speaker has invalidated the first.

Finishing the other character’s sentences: This again is a status play, demeaning the other character by insinuating that what he has to say is patently obvious.

Interpreting what the other character is saying: This often starts out with something like, “You mean to tell me,” which is different than paraphrasing the other character while trying to understand. It’s instead a way for one character to say he knows what the other was trying to say better than she does.

Asking a question, then not listening to the answer: This suggests the character wants to seem interested when he really isn’t. The question is a pose, not a real desire for information.

In the martial art known as dialog, all of these techniques are preemptive attacks, blocking maneuvers, dodges, or feints. Put to good use, they can add a touch of realism to dialog. But like anything else, they can also seem forced or overly clever, especially if unmotivated.


David Corbett is the author of four novels: Devil’s Redhead (New Blood), Done for a Dime(a New York Times Notable Book), Blood of Paradise: A Novel (Mortalis) (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar), and Blood of Paradise: A Novel (Mortalis) David’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Mission and Tenth, The Smoking Poet, San Francisco Noir and Best American Mystery Stories (2009 and 2011). He has taught both online and in classroom settings through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US. He lives in Vallejo, CA.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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20 Responses to Communication Breakdown

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. kmckendry says:

    Those are all great tips! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Dialogue is one of my better qualities according to my cps/betas. I think I did learn early that you do indeed need to “read” rather than “listen” to what people/characters are saying to make it “real.” Great post!!

  4. Well said 😉
    Printing this one out. Thanks!

  5. Rosi says:

    Very helpful post. I’ll be linking this one on my blog.

  6. JeffO says:

    Great stuff. I have to fight the urge to answer each character’s questions every time.

  7. Jaleh D says:

    I’ve to remember these points. I’ve got at least a few places that could use dialog improvements.

  8. Melody says:

    Major dialogue help, right here! Great post! *adds to favorites*

  9. Wake Up says:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Beth says:

    I think this is a great technique, and used sparingly can be really effective. Thanks!

  11. Unknown says:

    Becca: Great question, and it again comes down to those three key elements: Objective, Obstacle, Action. What does the character want (from her brother, in your example)? What stands in her way? What action does she take to overcome the obstacle(s) to continue trying to get what she wants?

    The limits of miscommunication are determined by what is wanted and how badly, the nature, quality, and intensity of the opposition to its gratification, and the variety of actions employed to prevail.

    I know this sounds like dialog is a gladiatorial encounter, but read the first scene from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and go line by line, analyzing how Blanche and Stella dance around the core issue: Does Blanche have a home with her sister? (Answer: It depends. On Stanley.)

    I’m guessing, since I don’t know the story at the heart of the trilogy you mentioned, but it sounds as though the author was trying to sustain suspense by creating tension then delaying its release — except, if you do that, it’s unfair not to provide the release. That’s like creating an itch and not letting the person scratch–ever. Frustrating? Oh yeah.

    If there is a secret dividing two people, the reader always wants to see the airing of the secret, for it shows maturity, strength, and courage on the part of the person with the secret to at last come clean. If that doesn’t happen, we need to feel that the concealment turns out to be the sadder but wiser choice.

    Kessie: You put your finger on the point exactly. One, variety is more interesting than a droning similitude, no matter how raucous. Two, no matter how fanciful, there needs to be a core emotional truth to a scene — and the fact is, no matter how opposed two people might be, they still listen to each other and converse intelligibly at times out of a need to better understand what’s happening so they can adjust their own motives and actions accordingly. Constant conflict is pointless conflict. In dialog, it’s dueling clamor.

    Every now and then, the boxers return to their corners, suss out their opponent’s tactics, and when the bell rings again, they return to the foray — jab, feint, dodge, dance, swing — but the purpose is to connect.


  12. I LOVED Daughter of Smoke and Bone. For so many reasons. The writing was unbelievable on so many levels.

  13. Kessie says:

    People talking at cross purposes is fun for some scenes, but I recently read this book called Dragonborn by Forward–and everyone in the whole book talks at cross purposes in every scene. The second half of the book dissolves into an incoherent mess.

    Whereas Daughter of Smoke and Bone has dialogue that snaps and sparkles. The characters talk to each other, over each other, and sometimes at cross-purposes. But it’s always coherent and sounds like conversations you’d have with your friends. The dialogue alone made the book enormously approachable.

  14. I have a question about this, oh Unknown Expert ;). I just read the final book in a trilogy I’ve been following and was pretty disappointed. One of the things that bothered me was the main character’s reluctance to reveal a hugely important piece of information to her brother. I understood her waffling, but the fact that she NEVER DID spill the beans in this particular case was unrealistic. And very frustrating.

    Any tips on how much miscommunication is too much? How to keep the reader enthralled without frustrating them?

  15. Unknown says:

    Well, that’s interesting — sign in with my Google account and it calls me Unknown.

    Oh, the wondrous mysteries of the Interweb.

    The previous post was from me, of course.


    David Corbett

  16. Unknown says:

    Stephanie: Thanks for the kind words, and I hope the post is helpful. I think you’re always on solid ground dramatically if you remember three simple things: objective 9what each character wants), obstacle (what’s keeping the characters from getting what they want in the scene), and action (what each character does to overcome the obstacle(s) and achieve the objective(s)). That’s as true of dialog as anything else.

    Diane: requestioning isn’t rude, it’s just staying focused on the objective! (He says slyly.)

    Elizabeth: I tell my students: Less is more, unless it’s not enough. Finding that magic line is one of the hardest things about writing. In dialog, you always have to remember that the speakers are DOING things to each other, trying to influence behavior: cajoling, flattering, deceiving, blaming. It works best when we focus on the underlying actions, not the overlying words. (Wlaso Salt, one of my favorite screenwriters, said he always wrote the dialog last, focusing first on the crucial actions and images in any given scene.)

    Lee: I agree. One of the great subtext exercises is to write a scene where one character simply can’t (or better yet, won’t) understand what the other is trying to say.

  17. I love writing dialog where the people aren’t “getting” each other at all. So many opportunities to reveal both characters and move that plot ahead.

    Thanks for your always great posts.

  18. Very nice post! Full of great reminders! In written dialogue, it’s true that less is more, but these tips help a writer find the essential “less”. Thanks.

  19. Love this! I use an example of rudeness in dialogue by requestioning, which I do quite a bit with my husband. 😀

    “Now that we agree we’re talking about the same Douglas, what’s your point?”

    “Well, that’s just completely uncalled for, Kelly.”

    “Mom, what’s your point?”

  20. This is a great post, not only about dialogue, but the nature of humans. For most of us, it is indeed, “all about me,” moderated by efforts to be more open to others. It’s so important to communicate this conflict in writing. Thank you for clarifying this. I bet it helps my writing.

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