Scott Sparling

Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire

Say What?

Posted on Oct 16th, 2012.

At my Wordstock workshop next weekend, one thing we’ll talk about is sniper dialogue—that short burst of speech in the middle of narrative that manages to totally redefine a particular moment or scene.

Writing good sniper dialogue is tough—for me, anyway—because you can’t rely on the back-and-forth interplay between characters. Everything depends on one line, or two, and then it’s back to narrative.

Since you have to do a lot with a little, there’s a tendency to overdo it. But it’s the underplayed dialogue that often works best in that situation.

One example I always think of is from Jon Raymond’s short story “Coast.”

A screenshot from "Coast" by Jon Raymond. 

Three bursts of dialogue—four words, five words, three words—and the relationship between these two characters has changed.

I don’t know if I’ve ever written any really good sniper dialogue—when my characters start talking, they tend to keep talking—but I’m always on the lookout for it.

I’ll be talking about all kinds of dialogue at Wordstock in PDX on Saturday, October 14. The workshop I’m leading is called “Keep Talking.” Now that I see it in the program, though, I kinda wished I’d called it “Say What??” Regardless, there’s sign-up info and more details here.


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“Tyrants and kings do their usual things and you try to stay out of their way.” Listen to the sniper attack of electric guitar that animates the acoustic background of Seger’s “Won’t Stop.” 

Seger: “I'm using a lot of acoustic guitar and then saving the electric stuff for these real razor solos, kind of like sneak attack songs." May 14, 1998, The Oakland Press