It’s Time to Write Some On-the-Nose Dialogue

It’s Day 8 of JulNoWriMo, and I’m writing some terrible dialogue.  It’s clunky.  It’s stilted.  It’s on-the-nose in that way that every writing teacher on the planet tells you dialogue shouldn’t be.

I’m declaring this to be a good thing.


We’ve all had the experience of having a conversation with someone who isn’t being as nice as they could be.  Someone who doesn’t have a problem looking you in the eye and saying something kind of condescending.  Or rude.  Or just downright idiotic.

And we’ve all had the experience of not knowing how to reply.  So we bite our tongues, or stutter an “excuse me”, or just shake our heads and change the topic.

Then, a week later, we’re in the shower rehashing that conversation and voila, it shows up–the perfect retort.  “That’s what I should have said!” we explain to our uncaring shampoo bottle.

Because that annoying conversation is still bothering us, and deep in our heads, some part of our brain was still trying to come up with a response.

The bad news is that I don’t have any advice for being wittier at parties.

The good news is that you can use your brain’s tendency to get stuck on the dumb stuff you said a week ago to be a better writer.

First, you have to actually write the crappy dialogue.  Let it be horrible.  Let your characters make fools of themselves.  Let them spill their guts all over the page of your first draft.

Second, each night before you go to bed at night, pick a horrible section and read it before you go to sleep.  Allow the awfulness of this passage to bother you.  Not that you wrote it, but that your characters spoke it.  Be bothered by the fact that one of your beloved characters didn’t get the last word.  Imagine how embarrassed your hero is that he sounded like a total dorkhead.

Then sleep on it.

Repeat until you find yourself staring off into the distance at the grocery store checkout line, mumbling that perfect line of dialogue over and over again so you won’t forget it by the time the cashier hands over your receipt.

I can’t tell you how soon you’ll start having those, “That’s what she should have said!” moments.  I’m starting to come up with better lines for the scenes I wrote back on Days 1 and 2.  That’s about right…that’s how long it takes me to come up with the perfect retort in real life too.  But my subconscious might be a lot slower than yours.

Here’s the passage from my WIP that I’ll be chewing over tonight:

“I don’t want my record expunged,” Soji said.  “I want a fair trial and I want to choose my own lawyer.”

Ghost cocked her head.  “You liked being court-martialed so much, you want to do it again?”

“I didn’t hide those drugs in the convoy.  Someone else did.  And they got away with it.”

“Revenge,” Shadow said softly.

Soji shook his head.  “Justice.”

“You’re hired,” Ghost said.

“Incidentally,” Shadow added, “when you accessed the file on your new bounty, your implant received an upgrade that will keep us informed of your location at all times.”

He took out neural inducer and tossed it to the floor in front of Soji.

Soji picked up the tiny patch—a sleeper.  He’d be unconscious for fifteen minutes, during which time they would be free to do who-knew-what to him.  I already hate this job.

“What if I need to contact you before I get to the rendezvous?”

“That would be unfortunate.”

Join in the fun–pick a run of dialogue from your work-in-progress that you’d like to improve and try this technique. 

If you want to save me from being the only person sharing first-draft awfulness with the world and post a snippet here, you’ll earn my undying gratitude and a virtual high-five for your bravery. 



  1. OK – I’ll play. I’m in need of a virtual high-five today. Here’s my passage.

    At the stair riser the two elves were greeted by a gatekeeper. Elissabet curtsied, and the creature, a great brown-skinned man adorned with horns of silver bowed. “Elissabet. Who is your guest?” The guardian’s voice boomed deep with concern.
    She turned her face to Theo. “Guest are unexpected.”
    Theo raised his arms in a grand gesture. “It is my most humble desire to speak to your wizards of the king. Would you permit it? Elissabet has generously offered my fare.” Theo held out his palm, the three fragments of Dragon Ore sparking against his skin.
    “I’ll allow it,” the gatekeeper said. He bowed his horns to the two elves, took Theo’s fare, and admitted them both into the internal recesses of the Hall of Magic.
    “Now to gain your entrance with my brother. He’s the light-keeper, Theo. Alastair Krogh, meet Theo Ansgar. He brings news of the king.” Elissabet tugged Theo in by the hand, and presented him for inspection.
    Malachai scowled.
    Elissabet searched his face for mercy, but none was there. Something sinister lurked behind her cousin’s eyes tonight, and the sight gripped her, and set her stomach afloat with dread. “What’s wrong with you, cousin?”
    Malachai’s blue eyes went flat gray. “Just what the hell is he doing here in the sanctity of this hall?”
    “He came to speak on behalf of Lachlan Elias,” she said.
    Malachai raised a pointed finger at Theo. “Ansgar has no right here, Alastair. Bar him from the council at once!”

    I’m not doing JulWriMo, but I am having issues with On The Nose dialogue. Thanks for the chance to post this passage and see where my holes lie.

    • Lynn Johnston says:

      *HIGH FIVE*

      Kudos for sharing your dialogue, Paula! I know that if you keep chewing this over, inspiration will hit. Elissabet’s argument with Malachai has great potential, and I’m feeling the tension. 🙂

  2. Bonnie G says:

    I’m so bad at dialogue. Maybe it’s because I’m really direct when I speak. I think it’s because I grew up in Chicago. I’m going to try your sleep on it suggestion.
    Great post.

    • Lynn Johnston says:

      Bonnie, I think we all struggle with dialogue. Really good dialogue is such a stylized, compression version of the way people really talk. I find that I can spend weeks tweaking passage to make it sound just right. It’s a learn-able skill. 🙂

      I look forward to hearing how the sleep suggestion works!

  3. Undying gratitude? Sign me up! Umm, except that I have to actually post it, don’t it? Well, I suppose that’s where the bravery comes in. Okay. First, let me say, I loved this post and advice. Thank you! And here’s some awful dialogue for you:

    “Marry me.”
    She took a deep breath, planted her hands on his chest and broke their embrace with a gentle, but insistent push.
    “The wall has protected us from the dragons for twenty years. But there is no doubt that they are trying to find a way around it. Sooner or later they will succeed. When they do, the kingdom must be strong, unified, and prepared. You cannot marry an orphaned farmer’s daughter.”
    He moved towards her again and this time she sidestepped, angling for the door.
    “You will make a great queen. You are well loved, well educated, you balance me in all things.”
    “I will not marry you.” She had to leave. Suddenly, the fire in her blood was uncomfortable. Sweat broke out on her upper lip.
    “I’ll not give up so easily.” His thumb brushed her lips, making them tingle in remembrance of his passion. “My father will approve, and then you will say yes.”
    If the king approved… hope flared in her breast. But it was a fool’s hope. The king and queen wanted their son happy, but the kingdom came first.
    “If he does, I will say yes.”
    He stepped towards her again. She danced nimbly away, holding her arm up to keep him at bay.
    “In the meantime, I’ve duties to attend to.” She had no intention of telling him she was going for a ride. He would send guards with her, especially in his current state and she needed to be alone.
    “As it pleases, my lady.” He gave her a courtly bow, his gaze following her intently.

    • Lynn Johnston says:

      You get a *HIGH FIVE* for your bravery, Samantha!

      This passage does a great job of making clear the romantic conflict. Everything else can be added in edits…I hope the active incubation brings you inspiration for great new lines!

Comments are closed.