“More Dialog!” he shouted. “Extrinsic vs Intrinsic!”

As I mentioned yesterday, I *love* dialog. It’s probably the best part of writing for me. But  it is also something very delicate. Like origami birds, or those really flimsy urine sample cups that you are certain will fall apart as you bring them to the desk. 

Yes, I just compared dialog to a urine sample. Deal with it.

Dialog is like a urine sample. Christ, I should write for Hallmark.

I say dialog is fragile because it is easy to get it wrong. It is easy to use it too much (I wince every time I have a character speaking for a paragraph. It’s like diluting my oil reserves or something). And it is easy to make it flat and boring so that it detracts from your story. I won’t go back into the “Movie Trailer Lines” stuff that I talked about yesterday, but you should always think about what you want to accomplish with your dialog. If you do this, you can make a powerful tool of your character’s voices.

An example? Okay. Anyone who knows me (and my writers’ group mates have heard this so much that they will roll their eyes if they read this) knows that I like to read stuff where what the characters mean is different from what the characters say

This has nothing to do with my blog post whatsoever. But it makes me laugh.

 There’s something about the multiple layers of innuendo that really makes my brain happy. Here is an example, from The Beast of Maug Maurai, Book II, where two characters are speaking about something without ever actually addressing it. But a message is sent and received. The set up: Sir Jastyn Whitewind sees Lord Aeren chatting up Sir Jastyn’s bloodwife/girlfriend. Lord Aeren is unaware of a relationship between Sir Jastyn and the girl. Sir Jastyn calls Lord Aeren out. Aeren figures out the relationship, but too late. 

Now, the scene:

Sir Jastyn led Aeren toward the edge of camp. “Aeren Threncannon,” he said. “Are you aware that I have faced your brother four times in the tilts?”

“That many?” asked Aeren, playing his part.


“Four times,” replied the knight. “I unhorsed him each time. Beat him in swords twice, as well. And once with maces.”

Aeren smiled wryly. “I do seem to recall something of the sort.”

Jastyn made a show of looking Aeren up and down. “You seem … quite a bit smaller than your brother.”

“Aye, Sir Jastyn, I am,” said Aeren. “But I make up for it in other ways. I’m a fast learner, for one.”

Jastyn smiled and thumped Aeren on the shoulder. Hard. “I’m certain of it,” he said. “You seem a very bright sort of fellow.”

“Sometimes not bright enough.”

Jastyn put his arm around the younger lord. “I am very happy that we spoke.”

“You really unhorsed him all four times?” asked Aeren as they made their way back to camp. Jastyn smiled.



Okay, so the translation. 

Jastyn: Mess with my woman again and you will be a stain on the carpet moss.

Aeren: Chill, brother, I figured it out. I won’t touch the bitch.

Jastyn: *Points two fingers to his eyes, then those same two fingers back at       Aeren* I’m watching you.

But I never said any of those things. There is not one direct comment made in the conversation. And this speaks to something I hadn’t mentioned in my last post about dialog. Intrinsic versus Extrinsic. And this, too, is something that makes eyes roll in my writers group. I talk about it a lot. 

An Extrinsic conversation is a conversation that is out on the table. Everything is spelled out. Only complete strangers speak extrinsically. And even then, there are intrinsic parts. Here’s a sample extrinsic conversation:

“Hi, I’m new here. What kind of sandwiches do you have?”

“All of our sandwiches are on the board. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Turkey. I just got here and hope to some day bring my family over.”

“Than maybe you’d like a turkey sandwich.” Laughs.

Okay. Everything is pretty straightforward. There is nothing hidden, no innuendo. Now for an Intrinsic conversation. This is the same two characters, a year later, after many visits to the shop by our Turkish friend. 

“Marty!” says the Turk.

“Hey Mamet. Tuna on rye, coming up.”

“What do you think?” asks Mamet.

“I think he’s going to lose the election. You get the visa’s?”

“She’s coming next week. And my father the week after that.”

“Tebrikler!” shouts Marty.


Okay, these are two people who are *tight*. They know each other well. They’ve spoken often. They don’t add details to the conversation because it’s more efficient for them not to. And both of them know the details, so there is no need to speak them. Intrinsic writing can be confusing to the reader when done poorly (kind of like our example above). But when done correctly, intrinsic dialog can make your characters leap off the page and draw your readers deep into your story. Poor extrinsic dialog makes it seem as if the characters are speaking only for the reader. You’ve read it. When the character says something like:

“Oh, Thomas, my brother, if only our parents hadn’t been killed by roving mongols, we wouldn’t have had to sell ourselves into slavery and find ourselves now without peanut butter in this kitchen belonging to our master. Too bad our sister isn’t here, but as you know, she is in a harem in Bangladesh now and we have both sworn to free her someday.”

That’s actually quite fun to write. *laughing* But it’s crap writing. So, if you pull anything from this rambling blog post today, try to remember Intrinsic versus Extrinsic. The more Intrinsic you can make dialog, without confusing the reader, the better your dialog will be.

Overly Extrinsic conversations are like this. Don’t do this.

Thanks for listening!