Here’s the second part of Dialog and the Art of War by Randy Ingermanson. If you like what he’s said, you should check out his other writing materials.
Dialogue and the Art of War–Part 2
Dialogue, as I said last month, is war. It’s not fought
with guns and tanks. It’s fought with words. But it’s
all about the same thing. Conflict. If you don’t have
conflict, then you don’t have dialogue.
Dialogue, by the way, is a series of a special kind of
MRU, in which rational speech figures more prominently
than normal. (If you’ve never heard of MRUs, then you
can find out all about them in the following article on
my web site:)
Last month, I gave an example of poor dialogue by a
writer we’ll call “Tom Clancy.” This month, just to
show that I’m a fair-minded guy, we’ll work through an
example of sharp and snappy dialogue, and we’ll call
this writer “Tom Clancy” too. It’s a common name, after
This excerpt is from the book PATRIOT GAMES. The
setting is the UK in the early 1980s. Our hero, Jack
Ryan, is in London on holiday and just happens to see
an assassination attempt in progress against Prince
Charlie and Lady Di. The bad guys are some IRA
terrorists armed with grenades and AK-47s. Jack barges
in barehanded and foils the attempt, wounding one of
the terrorists and killing another, thereby saving the
royals. For this service to the crown, he is given an
In the scene we’ll be analyzing, Jack is the star
witness in the trial of the terrorist he wounded. He’s
given his testimony, and now the barrister for the
defense is launching a cross-examination on him. The
lawyer’s goal is to discredit Jack. Jack’s job is to
stay calm and not have his testimony voided by losing
his temper. He wants this terrorist put behind bars for
“Tom” has set things up nicely. The conflict is sharply
defined. The two characters have opposing goals and the
stakes are high. If the barrister, “Red Charlie”
Atkinson, succeeds, then his client walks free. If Jack
convinces the jury, then the hood goes to jail for life.
We begin with Atkinson addressing Jack in the witness
“Doctor Ryan — or should I say Sir John?”
Jack waved his hand. “Whatever is convenient to you,
sir,” he answered indifferently. They had warned him
about Atkinson. A very clever bastard, they’d said.
Ryan had known quite a few clever bastards in the
Randy sez: Atkinson begins probing Jack by referring to
his recent knighthood. The goal here is to make Jack
seem snooty to the jury, who are all commoners. Jack
counters by making it clear he’s not too stuck on
himself. Notice that “Tom” is writing here in
well-formed MRUs. The comment by Atkinson is objective
and external. Jack’s response is interspersed with
interior monologue, since we are inside his head.
“You were, I believe, a leftenant in the United States
“Yes, sir, that is correct.”
Atkinson looked down at his notes, then over at the
jury. “Bloodthirsty mob, the U.S. Marines,” he
“Excuse me, sir? Bloodthirsty?” Ryan asked. “No, sir.
Most of the Marines I know are beer drinkers.”
Randy sez: Atkinson now goes for the throat. His goal
is to persuade the jury that Jack is a violent man (he
shot two terrorists, after all) and therefore not to be
trusted. Jack parries this with politeness and humor,
making Atkinson look silly. Jack has scored a point
with the jury here, as we see next.
Atkinson spun back at Ryan as a ripple of laughter came
down from the gallery. He gave Jack a thin, dangerous
smile. They’d warned Jack most of all to beware his
word games and tactical skill in the coutroom. To hell
with it, Ryan told himself. He smiled back at the
barrister. Go for it, asshole . . .
Randy sez: Oops, a couple of boo-boos here, “Tom.”
First, you’re showing the cause AFTER the effect in the
first sentence. The cause is the laughter from the
gallery. The effect is Atkinson spinning back toward
Ryan. This is a minor glitch which takes your reader
ever so slightly out of the present, since the flow of
time is temporarily reversed.
The second problem is that you need a paragraph break
after Atkinson’s action (in which he gives Jack a thin
dangerous smile) and Jack’s reaction (his interior
monologue). A break would cue the reader to switch from
the objective to the subjective. Again, it’s a minor
glitch. A visual cue for the reader is nice but not
We pick up with Atkinson pressing his attack.
“Forgive me, Sir John. A figure of speech. I meant to
say that the U.S. Marines have a reputation for
aggressiveness. Surely this is true?”
Randy sez: Another attempt by Atkinson to make Jack
look bad. There follows some more back-and-forth in
which Jack explains what a bunch of good guys Marines
are and Atkinson expresses skepticism. We’ll pick up a
few pages further on, when Atkinson tries to make Jack
the aggressor against an innocent Irishman bystander
who might very well have been coming to the rescue of
the royal family.
“I don’t suppose you’ve been told that my client has
never been arrested, or accused of any crime?”
“I guess that makes him a first offender.”
“It’s for the jury to decide that,” the lawyer snapped
back. “You did not see him fire a single shot, did
“No, sir, but his automatic had an eight-shot clip, and
there were only three rounds in it. When I fired my
third shot, it was empty.”
Randy sez: Atkinson is working Jack hard, playing off
the fact that Jack didn’t actually see the terrorist
firing the gun. Jack is responding with both humor and
logic. He’s doing a fine job and the lawyer is getting
angry with him.
There aren’t many wasted words in this dialogue. No
small talk. No convenient exchanges of information.
Just war, straight and simple. That’s good dialogue.
Nice job, “Tom.”
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 5000 readers, every month. If
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