By Writing Excuses | May 22, 2011 - 6:21 pm - Posted in Guest, Theory and Technique

John Scalzi joins Brandon and Howard at Penguicon for a discussion of writing dialog. John’s advice begins thusly: “start reading outside Science Fiction and Fantasy.” It’s good advice regardless, but John’s justification for it is fascinating.

Dialog in prose is not very much like real-life dialog. Your goal as a writer is to convince the reader that it is. And that’s what we’re going to try to teach you how to do. Or at least how to learn how to do.


Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi’s reboot of H.Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy, narrated by Wil Wheaton

Writing Prompt: Write a dialog between someone ordering at a drive-through and someone taking the order, but the person taking the order is being held up at gunpoint.

This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by Audible.
Visit for a free trial membership*.
*Note: From the Audible website, here are the terms of the free membership. Read the fine print, please!

Audible® Free Trial Details
Get your first 14 days of the AudibleListener® Gold membership plan free, which includes one audiobook credit. After your 14 day trial, your membership will renew each month for just $14.95 per month so you can continue to receive one audiobook credit per month plus members-only discounts on all audio purchases. A very small number of titles are more than one credit. Cancel your membership before your free trial period is up and you will not be charged. Thereafter, cancel anytime, effective the next billing cycle. Any unused audiobook credits will be lost at cancellation.


This entry was posted on Sunday, May 22nd, 2011 at 6:21 pm and is filed under Guest, Theory and Technique. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. May 22, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    Not the first dialogue podcast, but it’s a subject worth reviewing.

    Posted by Rafael
  2. May 22, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

    Just when I think it can’t get any better… Scalzi. You guys are good at what you do. I look forward to your casts weekly. Thanks for all your hard work and effort to be there for your fellow writers.

    Posted by Casey L. Conley
  3. May 23, 2011 @ 2:11 am

    wow, how did you guys get Scalzi!! Awesome stuff.

    Posted by Minnie Pearl's Hat
  4. May 23, 2011 @ 5:07 am

    […] conversation, since I had just listened to an episode of the “Writing Excuses” podcast, Writing Excuses 5.38: Dialog with John Scalzi and to Mur Lafferties excellent podcast “I Should Be Writing,” episode 202 – Being […]

  5. May 23, 2011 @ 7:47 am


    Posted by Tony
  6. May 23, 2011 @ 9:55 am

    @Minnie Pearl’s Hat: Scalzi and I met at Penguicon back in 2005, and our paths have crossed numerous times. When he showed up at Penguicon this year I invited him to join us for a recording session on Sunday, and he graciously accepted.

    It doesn’t hurt that Mary Robinette Kowal, VP of SFWA (the organization of which John Scalzi is currently President) is a great friend of the podcast, and has made that known on more than one occasion.

    We got Scalzi on the ‘cast because we didn’t go into it cold. There is an existing relationship. Also, none of us were afraid to extend the invitation. The worst thing that could happen is that he’d say “no.” (And yes, that’s happened before. We do get turned down. Who does Joe Biden think he is, anyway?)

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  7. May 23, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    On the subject of the nerds talking differently–most of my nerd friends’ humor is entirely dependent on references. My characters tromping around 15th century Spain cannot wave their hands and say ‘these are not the droids you’re looking for’. Since a good sixty percent of what little conversation I have is entirely quoted from something else, coming up with original stuff (especially humor) is HARD.

    Then you add in the fact that human beings tend to talk in cliches in the first place, and you have why my characters tend to be the strong, silent types.

    Posted by Jennifer McBride
  8. May 23, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    Speaking of SFWA, you should have Nebula Award-winning Eric James Stone back for a podcast.

    Posted by Katya
  9. May 23, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

    I was hoping you three would show up at the Nebula Award, but none did :-( I did spend quite a bit of time talking to Mary Robinette Kowal. She’s so nice and awesome. At one point, I was like “oh, my gosh, she talks to me like I’m her friend.”

    On dialog, I use dialogues as a way to put colors into my story, and by colors, I mean emotion, attitude, and mood. I make sure each line have a different voice and tone from those of the narrator. It helps to wake the reader up :-)

    Question: Are dialog and dialogue interchangable?

    Posted by Johnny
  10. May 23, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    […] Excuses – Their May 23 update, 5.38 Dialog with John Scalzi features some great tips on writing dialog in fiction, including Mr. Scalzi’s statement that […]

  11. May 23, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    I enjoyed this week’s podcast, especially since it solidified a lot of thoughts I’ve had on dialogue for a while. While I haven’t read anything yet from Brandon’s nemesis, John Scalzi, this made me more curious about his work.

    My loyalty is still with Brandon, of course.

    Posted by Len Berry
  12. May 23, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

    Another great ‘cast – thanks. :-)

    Big agree on watching movies for dialogue, especially golden age Hollywood movies. One of my faves is His Girl Friday, though Thin Man is great, too.

    The SF fan talking differently from “normal” people reminds me of something I read years ago. An SF&F writer brought her non-fan sister, a sociologist or linguist or something like that, to a convention. The sister had some fascinating comments on fan behavior as a social group – how fans can talk to each other and speak at the same time, but understand what the other is saying, or the use of words that you don’t see in non-fan dialogue, indicating people who learned words from books. One of the most interesting comments was that fans tend to only use their mouths when speaking, while most people use more of their cheek muscles – this indicated people who learned to speak at a very early age, when their facial muscle development was still poor. (There were other comments indicating social awkwardness and such – I recall that the non-fan sister was concerned about how this would all be taken, she did not consider it flattering, but fans read it and say, Yup, that’s us! :-))

    Posted by Laurie
  13. May 23, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

    Writing Excuses keeps shattering my worldview…first “steampunk is counter-culture” now “nerds talk different.” Maybe I just know too many nerds.

    Ditto the congrats to EJS. So happy for him and his Nebula!

    Posted by Megan
  14. May 23, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

    Again. Just when I thought writing excuses couldn’t get any better, John Scalzi hops aboard and goes warp speed. Ahsum!

    Posted by Dirty Wizard Hunter
  15. May 23, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

    SF Tidbits for 5/24/11…

    Interviews/ProfilesSentinel Nigeria (Unoma Azuah) interviews Nnedi Okorafor. Giant Fire Breathing Robot podcast interviews Lou Anders.Atomic Array interviews James Sutter, Dave Gross, Howard Andrew Jones, and Robin D. Laws (podcast).Fantasy Magazine (M…

    Posted by SF Signal
  16. May 23, 2011 @ 11:47 pm

    […] 3:44 PM (Uncategorized) (dialogue, postaday2011) This was written from the writing prompt in the Writing Excuses Podcast, episode 5.38 with John […]

  17. May 24, 2011 @ 4:04 am

    Challenge accepted! My response to the writing prompt.

    Thanks for an illuminating podcast. Now to catch up on back episodes….

    Posted by Chris G.
  18. May 24, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

    First time listening to one of these ‘casts but you can be sure I’ll be going back to listen to a lot more. Honestly it was John Scalzi’s name that drew me to it, and I’m a big fan of both Brandon Sanderson and John Scalzi and what really pulls me into their writing style is their dialogue (well, I mean, among everything else. Trying to avoid being a complete fanboy).

    I’ve been knocked off my pace from dialogue by other authors (like the book I’m currently reading now but won’t name) but that’s never happened with Sanderson or Scalzi. They mix the perfect amount of real speech patterns and what I’ll call “high” language for their characters (High language being nerd speak). It’s a mixture I try to achieve and am absurdly jealous of. I will definitely be trying my hand at this challenge.

    Posted by HW Thomas
  19. May 24, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

    Hurray for “The Thin Man” (and “His Girl Friday,” Laurie. Love Cary Grant).

    Posted by Robyn
  20. May 24, 2011 @ 3:41 pm


    You make an excellent point with your response: conveying information to the ignorant side of a conversation (when it is the viewpoint) through dialogue is very difficult.

    Posted by Duke
  21. May 24, 2011 @ 10:39 pm

    […] Excuses interviews John Scalzi […]

  22. June 5, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    I’m late, I’m late, but … here’s a transcript! More coming soon…

    Posted by Mike Barker
  23. May 26, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

    […] of hilarious theory of why dialogue often comes out sounding less than realistic. I recommend you listen here, but the embarrassingly-accurate gist is that writers spend a lot of time reading. That means that […]

  24. March 12, 2014 @ 12:05 am

    […] 5.38: Dialog with John Scalzi […]