How Not to Write

12. How Not to Talk

by Steve Rosse

There are two key challenges to writing dialog: make it sound real, and make the reader think there’s a reason these people need to talk to each other. Real dialog is rare in real life. We tend to limit conversation to instructions or trivialities, and usually only reveal ourselves through speech to a few close associates. That’s why pillow talk is so special. It’s rare.

Making dialog sound real is a matter of having an ear for it. An author has to be a good listener, and it takes a lifetime of paying close attention to conversations that you’re not a part of to acquire an ear for the rhythms of conversation.

But discovering reasons for your characters to talk to each other is a matter of strategy. It’s a technique that can be learned by anybody. Some jobs lend themselves to real conversation: a hairdresser converses with her clients all day long, but what a police officer and a suspect say to each other is not conversation. Sometimes your characters will be in personal relationships that lend themselves to conversation, which is why the family dinner table is a common setting in any kind of drama.

But sometimes characters talk to each other because the author forces them to. Take a handful of random folk and lock them up in a small space. Present them with a common dilemma and don’t let them out until they solve it. There’s “Strangers on a Train” and “Snakes on a Plane.” There’s “Bus Stop,” where a bunch of hicks are snowed into a diner with Marilyn Monroe, obviously an allegory for Hell.

In “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” Thornton Wilder used a bridge across a deep gorge, the only place to cross for miles in either direction, to bring together his smorgasbord of characters, and MR Kukrit Pramoj brazenly copied him in “Many Lives.” In “Canterbury Tales” Chaucer used an inn in the middle of nowhere, and a snowstorm that drives everybody indoors. In the remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” a grab-bag of Americans takes shelter from a zombie apocalypse in a suburban mall. (Actually, every movie ever made about zombies, world-wide epidemics, alien invasions or natural disasters has trapped an assortment of survivors in some place with plentiful food and weapons but no obvious way out.)

There are a couple iterations of the movie “Lifeboat.” There is “12 Angry Men” about a sequestered jury, and “The Thing” about scientists stranded at the South Pole. There’s a Twilight Zone episode where a clown, a cowboy, a soldier and a ballerina are locked in what looks like a corn silo. Samuel Beckett turned the convention on its head in “Waiting for Godot,” placing four strangers with no histories in a desolate wasteland with one dead tree and forcing them to converse for two hours without giving them anything to say. A device so powerful it was copied for an episode of “Star Trek.”

So the Lifeboat trope solves your dialog dilemma, but sadly leaves a bigger one in the area of plot. There’s a reason a lot of movies end with a chase. We’re excited when characters in fiction do stuff. Run, jump, shoot, kiss, fight. Five things, of many, that can’t be done on a lifeboat. Trapping your characters in a stalled elevator gives them time and reason to converse, but not much else to do.

So since Easlit is focused on stories about Asia, where might we find a crucible in which to mix our character stew? The assignment is more challenging, I think, in Asia because of the rigid stratification of society that happens there. A Singapore matron may get stuck in traffic with her Filipina maid in the car, but they’ll always relate to each other as maid and mistress. I doubt that the great-grandson of a Thai king would consider being stuck in a lifeboat together reason enough to address his servant in peer-level pronouns.

Maybe the funicular up to Victoria Point gets stuck, with a mix of Chinese students, office workers, government officials, British colonials and American tourists? Maybe a bus blows a tire on a jungle road in Indonesia. Maybe a mix of Thai peasants, hotel staff, and international tourists take shelter in a Buddhist temple in the wake of the 2004 tsunami?

The Tokyo subway breaks down? A Chinese commuter jet loses an engine? A yacht founders in the Mergui archipelago and the passengers are rescued by a Burmese fishing boat? A priest, a rabbi, and a duck walk into a bar in Delhi?

Maybe that’s a stretch.

Eastlit Note on How Not to Talk:

How Not to Talk is the twelfth article in the series. Previous articles in the series are:

How Not to Market Yourself

How Not to Use Style

How Not to Use Big Words

How Not to Begin

How Not to Tell a Story

How Not to Take Criticism

How Not to Self Publish

How Not to Care

How Not to Convince Me

How Not to Read

How Not to Create

Steve Rosse is a former columnist for The Nation newspaper in Bangkok.  His books are available on

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