• “The smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting 'Scrooge McDuck' comics.”—Salon.com
  • A time-hopping, continent-spanning salmagundi of genres.”
  • “These books have to be word-of-mouth books because they're too weird to describe to anybody.”
    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor

The Cannibal’s Art – Dialogue (workshop outline)

Copyright 2004 Diana Gabaldon


Like a scene, a good line of dialogue often has more than one purpose.  It should have at least one.

You don’t need to know the purpose as you write, but when you read over something you’ve written, you should be able to point to any given element–be that a line of dialogue, a descriptive phrase, a plot point–and say why it’s there.


What are the usual purposes of dialogue?

1.  To reveal character

2.  To develop or reveal relationships.

3.  To create or relieve tension.

4.  To adjust pacing.

5.  To move the story ahead.

*6.  To reveal information that a character needs to know.  (Don’t do it only because the reader needs to know.)

* Ideally, dialogue that does this should have another purpose, too.

II. PRINCIPLES: Quick “Rules” for the use of Dialogue:

1. Use short sentences.

2. Use short paragraphs.

3. Make it clear who’s saying what (dialogue tags).

4. Don’t go overboard in avoiding “said.”

5. Don’t use dialogue to give background information.

6. Pay attention to who’s talking, and who they’re talking to.

7. Use idiom, dialect, characteristic interjections, etc. to distinguish  character, geography, social class, time period,etc.

a. accent

b. dialect

c. idiom

8. Balance dialogue vs. narrative – avoid long stretches of uninterrupted  dialogue.

9. Don’t let characters talk pointlessly – they only talk if there’s  something to say.

10. Don’t interrupt an action sequence with dialogue.

11.  Dialogue doesn’t take place in a vacuum.  Dialogue is contradictory, in that it can either speed up or slow down a passage.

a. context

b. underpainting

III. Common Situations in which there’s Something to Say:


New character joins scene

Something remarkable happens

News is brought or observed

Plotters confer

III. Variant: Interior Monologue

1. implied

2. explicit

3. epistolary

IV. Variant: Multiple Voices

1. Tight grip on single POV.

2. Follow the chief action of the scene.

3. Quick asides to anchor the narrator.

V. Formatting Issues – Some Things are “Style,” and Some Things are Just Wrong.

a. Quotes

b. Dashes, Commas, Semi-colons, etc.

c. Italics