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Saturday, November 3

Real Life Diagnostics: Does the Dialogue Sound Natural and Believable?

Critique By Maria D'Marco

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and we diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Two


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 17.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the dialogue sound natural and believable?

2. Is there enough information to indicate that escalating problems with his boss could be the external conflict and future questioning of his non-belief in alien abductions could be his internal conflict? Or is it too soon in the story?

3. Would you keep reading?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

This was the worst story that SOB editor has given me in fifteen years.

“I’ve compiled a list of one hundred people in Southwestern United States who claimed to have been abducted by aliens,” my editor said.

“All the abductions are a hoax and interviewing those people is a joke,” I argued

“That’s the conclusion that I want to show. If you don’t do the story, you can find another job.”

That’s how my three months of hell started.

After a month, all I had was very sketchy details on almost half of the encounters. Not enough for a story. The Friday check in calls with my boss were getting more confrontational.

I pulled into a small subdivision of Mesa. The Phoenix area always has a high number of reported abductions.

The house was a light brown, stucco ranch with a red tile roof. Small beige stones layered across the lawn, with palm trees and bushes jutting out. Almost nobody waters out here.

I rang the doorbell.

A man in his mid-fifties, dressed comfortably in shorts and a tee shirt opened the door.

“Can I help you?”

“Mr. Dunham. I’m David Gillum of Endeavor Magazine and I’m doing a story on people who have experienced alien abductions. I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

He froze for a second, a hint of fear crept into his eyes, his mouth opened slightly, and then closed. “I’m not interested in talking.” He slammed the door.

I started to walk away but he looked like he really wanted to say something but stopped himself. Why?

I rang the doorbell again.

My Thoughts in Purple:

This was [is or was?] the worst story that SOB editor has [has or had?] given me in fifteen years.

“I’ve compiled a list of one hundred people in Southwestern United States who claimed to have been abducted by aliens,” [still struggling with this being reflection (my editor had said) & this is a chance to show his attitude by how he presents the assignment] my editor said.

“All the abductions are a hoax and interviewing those people is a joke,” I argued. [the dialogue shows he’s arguing, so we don’t need to reaffirm here.]

“That’s the conclusion that I want to show. If you don’t do the story, you can find another job.”

That’s how my three months of hell started. [This could also be a beginning point that then flashes back to the assignment by the editor, then goes to the work accomplished in the past month, and now pulling into Mesa]

After a month, all I had was very sketchy details on almost half [I would like this to be more definite or more detailed so it has more meaning] of the encounters. Not enough for a story. The Friday check in calls with my boss were getting more confrontational. [I would rather see this in the dialogue, maybe as a demand from the editor, then it can become a conflict]

I pulled into a small subdivision of Mesa. [This feels more like the beginning to me] The Phoenix area always has a high number of reported abductions. [shouldn’t this reference his ‘list’? This statement is too generic]

The house was a light brown, stucco ranch with a red tile roof. Small beige stones layered across the lawn, [don’t know what this means] with palm trees and bushes jutting out. [this feels unfinished] Almost nobody waters out here. [this seems a bit left-field, you mention ‘lawn’ then jutting plants – perhaps reference that it’s a common desert ‘yard’ – dirt and spiky plants?]

I rang the doorbell.

A man in his mid-fifties, dressed comfortably in shorts and a tee shirt opened the door.

“Can I help you?”

Mr. Dunham. [should this be a question? Then the man nods?] I’m David Gillum of Endeavor Magazine and I’m doing a story on people who have experienced alien abductions. I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

He froze for a second, a hint of fear crept [what-did-the-protagonist-see?] into his eyes, his mouth opened slightly, and then closed. “I’m not interested in talking.” He slammed the door.

I started to walk away [has he actually turned from the door? Or is it more likely that he’s still just standing there, wondering what the heck?] but he looked like he really wanted to say something but stopped himself. [what-did-the-protagonist-see that makes him think this guy wanted to talk?] Why? [why what? Did the guy freeze, eyes darting around, gaze stops as mouth opens, then mouth shuts, along with the door? Perhaps a better question is: what spooked him?]

I rang the doorbell again.

The questions:

1. Does the dialogue sound natural and believable?


The dialogue gives a bit of info, but could be much much more. This is an opportunity to reveal some things about the protagonist, his editor, his job, and both personalities. We assume this editor has worked with the protagonist (who needs to be named) for the past 15 years. They must know each other pretty well. The editor knows the protagonist will balk at doing this story. So, is the threat to find another job real, or something his editor uses to show that it’s a done deal, shut up and get out of my office?

Perhaps the dialogue can show that the editor is giving the writer/reporter all summer to work the story up, that he needs it by September, and it’s now June. He needs the piece for the October magazine/Halloween special. The protagonist can argue that he did the stupid piece last Christmas about veggies, potato chips, and grilled cheese sandwiches that resembled Jesus, and his editor knows that he swore he’d never do another article like that again.

If we can use the dialogue to expose that the conflict here has history, that the protagonist doesn’t have any strong beliefs (or only certain beliefs-whatever works for the story) and feels such stories are ‘beneath’ him, that the editor would throw the bum out, except that he keeps writing these killer stories that rack up the readership of the magazine (pure gold in publishing).

Right now, the dialogue is a bit stiff – we either need more, richer interaction or this needs to be full-on reflection, like as he sits in the car, in the heat, in July (a month into the story), gathering gumption go talk to another ‘dead lead’ on the editor’s list. The dialogue could then be very brief, and then supported by internal thought, cursing his situation and the editor who put him there.

With dialogue, try to keep in mind the relationship between these two guys. The editor anticipates the argument. The protagonist reliably reacts, then argues/complains. The editor threatens – angrily? wearily? in exasperation? Who is bluffing? Which is dance and which is real?

You set the tone and tell the reader what’s going on by how these characters speak to one another.

(Here's more on thirteen secrets for sizzling dialogue)

2. Is there enough information to indicate that escalating problems with his boss could be the external conflict and future questioning of his non-belief in alien abductions could be his internal conflict? Or is it too soon in the story?

To me, it’s too soon to see either of this – as the material stands…

As mentioned before, unless you set it up that this clash with his editor on this story is unusual, it’s easier to assume that these two regularly battle, which is a common enough situation. You could easily create stiffer conflict by putting some power behind the ‘find another job threat’, either at the moment, in the dialogue, or upon reflection where inner thought can reveal that the protagonist’s job is hanging by a thread.

I see no internal conflict. He seems pretty adamant about alien abductions – and then the editor agrees with him, and states that this is the ‘conclusion’ he wants in the story. This seemed odd to me – a veteran editor giving an assignment to a writer he’s known for 15 years won’t tell him how to write it, but might suggest the ‘lean’.

You have plenty of options to plant hard line stances with both characters that will underline some foundational conflicts they have that never go away. This also means you can help the reader recognize later, and have trust in that recognition, when one or the other reacts out of character.

(Here's more on internal vs external conflict)

3. Would you keep reading?

Regardless of my comments – yes, I would read on. I like the premise of combatant editor and writer/reporter. I like the premise of non-believer having to chase a story he doesn’t believe in. I like the potential of having his pants scared off, his mind twisted, maybe getting into a bit of alien danger?

I would like to see more exposure of the protagonist’s personality. As it stands, this opening is jumbled – meaning there are two spots that felt more like the actual opening. I could easily envision a scene opening with the protagonist sitting in 104-degree July heat in a suburb of Phoenix, capital of frying eggs on sidewalks, and staring at his notepad (tablet/phone/etc.) and heaving a great sigh, shirt pretty much sweat through, as he prepares to go to the door. His observations would be bored, brief and caustic. He would recall the conversation that landed him in this situation. Internal thought would reveal his mind-set, frustration, etc. Maybe he’s already been to 47 homes on ‘the list’ (he needs to hate the list) and no one is talking. Maybe this guy will break the silence? Maybe our protagonist has a glimmer of hope? That way, when the homeowner freaks and slams the door, our weary protagonist decides he’s going to force the issue – make this freaked out guy talk.

So, yeah, I’d keep on reading, because I’m interested in the potential in the story. I’m curious to see what you do to keep my interest.

The biggest problem I see is the weak opening – and all the material is there, just move the pieces around until the scene pops out and grabs you.

(Here's more on 5 common problems with beginnings)

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

1 comment:

  1. I think this opening needs to zero in on what the reader's supposed to want right now, so that the characters, the descriptions, the pacing and everything else can focus that.

    Look at some of the best opening scenes. If a scene is horror it might position everything to draw you into fear; romance captures how a character deserves to find someone and hasn't yet; mystery shows an original crime and what's at stake if it isn't solved.

    So what should we feel here, and how's it carry us from the first words to the twist? A start would be Kurt Vonnegut's famous tip that a character should immediately "want something, even if it's only a glass of water." The reporter thinks he's been wasting his time for months-- Maria's suggestion that frustration boils over and makes him try to force this man to talk might be just the way to go. Or it could be his boredom, if you can keep us interested in what the reporter *does* think about to fill his moments, and the contrast with the work ahead. Or he could be a perceptive pro who's spotting all the signs around him that this is Just Another Hoax and the couple of clues that this one might be more.

    Especially, some of the opening lines with the editor make it hard to feel when this is happening. We want to be in the moment where things are about to change, and share whatever's driving the reporter right now, so any backstory should seem like it's clearly a memory rather than a different setting. Your initial "This was the worst story" is a good line (and might well be the best opening hook, especially if you throw in "Aliens! this was..." to make the complete point faster), but then you have a few lines of real conversation that pulls us out of the moment. I'd rather have the reporter be walking up to the house, interlaced with fragmented thoughts like that that give us the full situation and his stance about it. One easy way would be a set of one-line "Just go talk to them, he said. Listening to some crazies won't kill you, he said" memories of the editor's orders, as the essence of how the reporter's trapped.

    I think it's some flow of emotion that needs to sweep this along. Description (and above all capturing that look on the abductee's face!) and other tools can do plenty to bring it to life, once you decide exactly what that life is so far.

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