Nano Tip #1: Dialog Spine


Welcome to Nano Tips, a month-long festival of writing tips from me and Justine. We’ll be posting daily, me on the odd-numbered days of November, and Justine on the even-numbered days. This is, of course, all in celebration of NaNoWriMo. (And I think you know what that is.)

So here’s my first tip: The Dialog Spine.

Many writers use the so-called “dialog spine” as a way of mapping out a scene. As a sort of “zero draft,” they write just dialog, with no setting, action, or even attribution. It’s a quick once-over of conflict and resolution in a scene, without any tricky bits to slow you down.

This, of course, assumes that you find dialog easy. For some people, writing the action/description/whatever first might make more sense. In any case, you don’t have to make your dialog (or whatever) perfect. It’s just a way of mapping out the main beats in a scene.

But there’s another trick that I use the dialog spine for: blowing out the cobwebs. And by cobwebs, I mean “writer’s block,” “general ennui,” or “an idea that just needs to be written down, but I don’t have time.”

For example, over the last three days I’ve had a small but persistent short story idea. Of course, I’m on tour and just about to start doing revisions on Behemoth, book two of Leviathan. I don’t have time to write a short story, but I want to get this idea down. Once I write the dialog spine, maybe I’ll realize that there’s not that much to it. Or at least it’ll be on paper and out of my busy, busy brain.

And occasionally, a dialog-only short story is a lovely thing on its own. This falls less into the “novel writing advice” category and more into “a weird writing exercise.” But it’s all useful. Quite often in the middle of a novel, it’s good therapy to write a simple short story.

So here are my personal rules to writing a Dialog Spine Story:

1) Only dialog. That’s it. Zero exceptions.
2) Only two characters speak. Other characters and their dialog may be implied, but their words do not appear on paper.
3) One character’s dialog uses quotation marks, the other doesn’t. (This saves fiddling with attribution, or spending a lot of time creating verbal ticks to tell the characters apart. Remember, the point of this is to be quick and dirty. Not astonishingly artful.)

So what do these stories look like? I thought you’d never ask.

Here’s one I did just yesterday, for Halloween:

Served Cold
By Scott Westerfeld
October 31, 2009

Mind if I sit down?

“Oh, my goodness.”

Sorry to surprise you.

“But you . . . ”

I know. You didn’t expect to see anyone in town today. Least of all me.

“No, I didn’t. But of course it’s wonderful to see you. Please.”

For heaven’s sake, don’t get up! Does that arm hurt much?

“They say it’ll be fine. It throbs in a bit, but I’m full of codeine. Can I get you anything . . . ? Ah. That’s probably a stupid question.”

No, it’s not. Coffee would be wonderful.

“Really? You’re not just making fun of me?”

I would never make fun of you. Anyway, I always liked the smell of coffee better than the taste.

“Yes, I remember that . . . Excuse me, waiter, but could I have a coffee, please?”

Tell him black.

“Black, please.”

You’re very kind.

“Well, it’s the least I can do.”

Don’t be silly. It wasn’t your fault, you know. Just one of those things.

“Really? I mean, that’s what the police said. It was the ice.”

And they were perfectly right. It isn’t safe on those small roads out of town. Goodness, is that gin I smell?

“Yes. A bit early, I suppose.”

But it’s been a long week, as you always say. And look, you’ve hardly touched your salmon. It looks quite cold.

“The salmon is served cold here. But yes, it’s slow, eating with one hand.”

Poor baby. I wish I could hold a knife. Ah, here’s my coffee. Do you mind pushing it across, please?

“Of course.”

Yes, that’s a lovely smell. It’s the little things, you know. Even now.

“I’ve always thought so. Not that I would know anything about . . . ”

No, you’ve no idea. There must be lots of questions you want to ask.

“Of course.”

Well, don’t be tongue tied.

“I suppose . . . the main thing is, is it good? Or is it horrible?”

Hmm. It’s melancholy, more than anything. Like not being invited to a party, and all your friends are there. Speaking of which, you were invited to the funeral, weren’t you?

“Of course.”

And it’s today.

“Yes. It’s just starting now, I suppose.”

Then why aren’t you there?

“Well . . . I could ask you the same thing, you know.”

Ha! I suppose you could. And I was going to go. But you know what they say. It’s not for me; it’s for them.

“Well, maybe I’m not one of them.”

Don’t be philosophical, darling. You are one of them. You’re only here in town because you’re afraid.

“Well . . . not afraid, exactly.”

Yes, exactly afraid. Afraid that everyone will stare. With that arm still in a sling, who could help staring? And they’d ask if it hurts, like I just did. Really, how awkward.

“I’m so sorry.”

Don’t be silly. I told you, it wasn’t your fault. It was a patch of ice.

“Are you sure?”

About the ice? Yes. I took a good long look at it again this morning. It was back again, after melting in the sun yesterday! The roads are quite unsafe. Someone should do something.

“But there’s nothing I could have done, right?”

Well . . . perhaps there was one little thing.


If I’d been wearing my seatbelt, I’d be sitting here properly, wouldn’t I? Having cold salmon with you.

“You hate salmon, and you never bothered with seatbelts.”

I would have put mine on, if you’d asked me. I’d have done that for you.



“But it’s not as though . . . you’re eighteen, after all.”

Ah. You’ve been practicing that line, haven’t you?

“Don’t be crass.”

Sorry. But I was wondering if my parents had asked yet. About why we were out so late.

“No. They haven’t said anything.”

That means you’re in trouble, of course.

“Well, they’re still quite overwhelmed.”

No—you’re in trouble. Just look at you, sitting here all alone, pushing your lunch around with one hand. In trouble and drinking gin on top of your codeine.

“And missing you.”

And missing my funeral, you mean. The nerve of you. They’ll only talk more because you’re not there. It’s an admission of shame.

“I’m not ashamed.”

You were wearing a seatbelt.

“I . . . yes, I always do.”

And I’d have worn one if you’d asked. I did a lot of things for you.

“I know.”

Good. Then you’ll do something for me? One last thing?

“Of course.”

Go to my funeral.

“But . . . now?”

Yes, now. I know it’s already started, but funerals are always endless. Leave right away, and you’ll catch the main event. I want you to be there.

“I . . . I suppose I could still make it. Are you coming . . . with me?”

No, I’ll go ahead. But I’ll be beside you all the way, in spirit. Look, here’s the waiter.

“Check, please? Listen, I’m not quite sure your parents want me there.”

Of course they do. You’re their best friend! And I want you there, so steel yourself, darling. Here, finish your gin, that’s right. Look, he’s got your check already. Pay with cash, it’s quicker.

“All right. Don’t rush me.”

You’ll have to drive fast, won’t you?

“It’s rather tricky, with one hand. Do you really want this so much?”

More than anything. Please be there to watch them lower me. Don’t let me go down there alone.

“Of course. I promise I’ll be there. I’m so sorry.”

Don’t be silly. It was just the ice. Just go.
. . .
Drive safely.

Mwa-hah-hah! Like I said, it’s a quick-and-dirty Halloween story.

Anyway, feel free to discuss what you think is going on in the comments. And behold the power of dialog!

On my next Nano Tip day, November 3, I’ll discuss this story in more detail.

And here’s Justine’s post with Nano Tip #2!

Sort of Update:
Almost forgot the obligatory click here for Leviathan tour details. And here to buy Leviathan.

100 thoughts on “Nano Tip #1: Dialog Spine

  1. That story was really interesting. The fact that it’s all dialog makes it harder to follow, but not so hard that it’s impossible. It’s a short story I’m sure my English teachers would love- you really have to think to figure it out. I like that a lot.

    I wish you had time to do NaNoWriMo! I’m sure you’d come up with something amazing. :]

  2. Wow. What I got from that story was a person who had a broken arm, sitting at a restaurant, is visited by the ghost of his/her recently deceased significant other, who asks him/her to go to his/her funeral. The alive one had been driving the car when it hit ice, crashed, and killed the dead one.

    At least, that’s how I read it. It was a bit confusing at first, but fantastically wonderful. I loved it!

  3. Well done, LaurelArwen. One thing I like about the Dialog Spine Story is that you can hide the gender of the characters, if you want.

    Of course, the reader can always make inferences. Not just about gender, but age, social class, etc. Any guesses about those, anyone?

  4. This will be so helpful!! Thanks so much!
    I’m still working on a book, at 80,000 words now. I need all the help I can get with tips and editing and publishing, too! I look forward to the next days! Thanks again!

  5. Thanks! I’ve had writers block for a while and this will definitly help.
    I loved the story. The thing I was trying to figure out was the relationship between the two characters. Like LaurelArwen said, you can’t really tell the gender, and at first I thought it may have been a husband and wife. But then you threw in the age of 18 and the “darlings” and the parents best friend and thats what through me off. Best friends or boyfriend and girlfriend? Or maybe the ghost was alot older? the darling also contributed. It leans toward the ghost being female, but it could also be male, and the darling would just shape his personality more…
    wonderfully written though!
    I’m going to def use this next time I write

  6. Oh my god–that was so sad! (your dialogue spine, I mean)
    I would really love to read the entire story once it’s finished. 🙂

    As for the tip, I’m not much of a dialogue person. I wish I were better at it, but setting and descriptions in general just come much easier to me. I’ll give the dialogue spine exercise a chance one of these days, though. Maybe it’ll help me improve.

    Thanks for the tip!


  7. Yeah, LaurelArwen, I got that too. Actually, I thought that the dead character was the one who had been driving – but I think that him/her being in the passenger seat makes a little more sense.
    Also, Mr. Scott, I think that the quotations was a female and the dead person was a male – in fact, I’m almost sure of it. Then again, it’s somewhat uncommon for a girl to be so open about drinking. But, no, I’m almost sure from the tone that she was a girl. The way that she asks for confirmation with words like “right?” and how she pays attention to close detail – it seems to me that she’s a girl. I’ve also noticed that more guys than girls go without wearing seat belts, or put up a fuss about wearing them – a personal observation.
    And as for thinking the character without quotations was a guy, well, I think it’s the sureness of his words. It’s beyond thinking that he’s dead and he’s thought a lot – it’s the fact that he’s very sure of himself. Of what he has to say. A more masculine quality than feminine.
    I think they were both middle-class. And I think they lived in the country. I don’t know why, but their words just paint an image in my head – living out, away from the city. They’re probably sitting in a small diner – very small, made mostly of wood – and the funeral is a good 20 minutes away, because that’s how close the nearest church is. On top of that, when the dead character asked if his parents asked why he was out so late, I imagined a screen door slamming as they ran out.
    They’re farmers, maybe, but that might only be painted in my head because of the country setting I’ve put them in.
    Going over the story again, I wonder if I have the genders switched. Nope, I’m sticking with what I’ve said.
    And lastly, these two people were in a relationship. Not a relationship, exactly, not boyfriend/girlfriend. But clearly, the person who is still alive loves the one that has been killed. And while they were close, maybe nearly dating but not officially, the one who was killed wants to make sure the one who is still alive takes care of herself.
    I’ve read it again. I really think the one who died was the driver. Hmmm.
    Anyway, I could say much more – about what the characters look like, et cetera, but I really should go. I hope you enjoy my analysis, Mr. Scott!

  8. I also think the dead person is setting up the live person. Driving one-handed on an icy road and trying to get to something that’s already started is *seriously* not safe–even a seatbelt might not be enough to save someone in an accident.

    Key line: Don’t let me go down there alone.

  9. I loved that! It was great, and not confusing at all (to me, at least.) I think the alive one is a girl, by the way the ghost called her “Darling” and the ghost is a boy. No reason, I just get that feeling.
    I get the sense at the end of the story that something bad is going to happen to the live one. The way the ghost tells her to drive safely, and how she suggests it is difficult to drive with one arm. I’m pretty sure the ghost is going to try and kill her as he’s “beside her in spirit”. And the last line feels slightly sinister. I could be totally wrong, but it is Halloween, after all.

  10. (don’t mean to inundate, but…)

    Just looked at the story again and noticed the title. A clear takeoff on the saying, “Revenge is best served cold.”

  11. This is SO interesting. It’s really cool, seeing how you guys read this. I’ll be talking about my authorial intentions on Tuesday, so till then I won’t comment on specific interpretations.

  12. The live one’s the girl, the dead one’s the boy.

    Very random, but I came one here specifically to request, even though it probably won’t make a difference- Can you please recommend a book in a blog post sometime? After I read Midnighters (2 years ago) I developed an insane attachment to it and good books haven’t been as easy to come by, since. I read The Forest Of Hands And Teeth that you reviewed, which was really good!

    Whoa, those were a bunch of crazy run-ons.

  13. Nonono, I was too late! Shmamit, if I had commented 1 second earlier, Scott would have read my post! Oh, I’m crying over you, Scott!

  14. It’s amazing to me how many different ways there are to interpret this story. I thought at first read that both speakers were female–casual friends, perhaps (the dead one with an affectation of calling everyone “darling” and the live one slightly younger, slightly intimidated by the other in life). I read the story again after reading the comments and can see why some people thought the dead one was male, but I still think that both characters are female. I’m also sure that the live character was driving the car; this explains the apology, as well as the reluctance to attend the funeral. The ending is creepy–it’s clear to me that the dead one wants to see the other character die.

  15. Wow! This sounds icy! I’m so excited for more writing tips! 😀
    It’s really great that there are teens in the world who care about reading and writing so much… and adult authors who write for these teens! (although, it’s not just teens who love your books- my dad read Leviathan and loved it!)
    Hey Scott-la, you’re finally responding to comments again! Bubbly!
    That story was really creepy… and icy! 🙂

  16. I really though the dead one was female and the live one was male! The way he/she says “darling” and the way he/she talks seems to fit this kind of cavalier image I have in my mind of a woman who never wears her seatbelt. Also, the way he/she says “poor baby”, sarcastically (imo). The live one seems a bit masculine, drinking gin on top of codeine, and I can see a man being “best friends” with his significant other’s parents more than a woman. But these are just my immediate impressions. I don’t like gender stereotypes much.

  17. Okay… after rereading the story again… WOW!
    I see both characters as female too, maybe the live one looked up to the dead one before… it seems to me that the live one is slightly afraid of the dead one… like she (the live one) isn’t quite sure that the dead one was once her friend.

    Did that make any sense? Oh well, the point is, it’s a really interesting story.

  18. That was really neat! I’ve never done any of these (nor heard of them before now), but I’ve got loads stored up in my head.

    Quick question: will Justine’s tips be posted here, or will we have to go onto her blog? Either way, I’ll be reading them!

  19. Huh, it seems that I have done a dialogue spine without even realizing it! I did put some actions in parenthesis, though, so it wasn’t the same exact format. ^_^
    I really like how as I’m reading this, I learn what is going on through the dialogue… I also love stories about spirits. ;D Dialogue spines are surprisingly powerful!

  20. My friend wrote something like this before, so I wasn’t too confused. I got the idea that the person wasn’t really a person on the line “Tell him black”, implying that he couldn’t tell the waiter himself. For some reason I immediately thought that the live one was female and the dead one was male, but I thought they were older until I heard their age.

    I also really liked how you had the woman speaking with quotation marks, because it made her seem more real. In most books the voice in someone’s head usually doesn’t have quotation marks, either it’s normal text or in italics.

    Also, when writing this, were you thinking that the woman was actually speaking out loud, or in her head? Or does it not really matter.

    Here’s the link to my friend’s story, if anyone would like to read it. I found it cute and enjoyable. It’s not exactly what Scott’s talking about, but it goes along the same lines of not flat out giving you the information. 🙂

    And I’m really excited for this month! I can’t wait!!!!

  21. This is a real coincidence- in my English class we have to write a short story, and an option is to model it after Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. This is exactly what I needed. Thanks so much!

  22. I didn’t pick up any gender in these two. Guess I wasn’t looking for it. I was trying to puzzle out their relationship, though. I thought for the most part that they were friends, though I guess they could be romantically involved based on the use of “darling”.

    A certain resentment showed through early on, when the ghost mentioned the seat belt. And it was obvious by the end that the ghost is feeling a bit murderous. “[the ice] was back again, after melting in the sun yesterday,” “You’ll have to drive fast,” “Finish your gin,” etc. And yes, as someone else mentioned, “Don’t let me go down there alone.”

    Really cool story. Thanks for sharing it!


  23. I loved the short story. And the dialogue-spne could prove really useful this month, thanks.

    The way I interpreted the story, the ghost is female, and a teenager. She’s secretly dating one of her parents’ friends, a man who is much older than herself (40-ish?). And the way the ghost is so insistent about him driving to her funeral, hurrying, while the roads are so bad, is because he’s going to hit a patch of ice on the way to the funeral and get killed himself. It’s her revenge.

    But it’s just one way of reading it.

  24. I’m not sure what genders the charaters are, but I get the feeling that the live person is a man. The dead person obviously has a good human intuition, about reading people, making me think that its a woman.

    After a quick skimming, i thought that the man may be close with the girls parents, maybe secretly dating thier daughter??

    Well, im in class at the mo, so only had a quick read. Will do another later. xx

  25. oooh i love ghost stories hehe. i dont know why but right when i started reading it i was reading the quotations as a girl and the dead person as a guy. i think its cuz the second line was “oh my goodness” and ive never heard a guy say oh my goodness before hehe. and i actually didnt find it confusing at all. hmmm

    -Lizzy-wa OUT! 8)

  26. wow very interesting form of writing. I loved the story, it reminded me of something else ive once read before about how some people cant let go of what happened and envision themselves talking to whoever they might have believed they harmed to atone for it, inevitably convincing themselves to do something stupid, or odd, or something. i wrote a story like this before. not this format and simply not as good, but the basic idea. only instead of ice, it was another car.

    my interpretation of the ghost and person’s relationship is that they might have been the friend-guardian thing. the person being the parent’s best friend, they might have been entrusted to look after the ghost, so they feel doubly guilty for this happening because they feel they failed.

  27. Definitely got the sense that the live person was an older woman (best friend of the parents) of the dead male, and they were in a (possibly yet unconsummated) romantic/sexual relationship. The live person was clearly driving, hence the “it wasn’t my fault” avowals, and his response to her statement “well, you were eighteen” of “practicing that line, haven’t you” suggests there was or would soon be a sexual relationship (she reconfirms that with “Don’t be crass.”) The male/female cues I didn’t pick up on consciously, but I think Haley Ray’s dialog analysis was right on, even if I disagree about who was driving. There was no certainty about the genders, like there was about the facts that this was a dead person talking to a live one, who had been driving – there certainly could have been an 18-year-old woman so confident and assertive – but that wasn’t the sense I got.

    I also got the sense that the ghost was trying to kill the live person – I wasn’t positive, but the live person HAD been drinking, does have one hand, AND the ghost mentioned earlier that the ice was back. And mentioned that he didn’t want to “go down there alone.” So, you know, that sucks.

    I was also initially uncertain if this was a sort of alternate/science-fictional world where ghosts just sometimes appear, since she initially shows no surprise – but maybe, if the dialogue spine was fleshed out, there would have been nonverbal cues of surprise, since they didn’t talk about the mechanisms of being a ghost at all.

    One of the interesting things about the reading experience for me was that it “clicked” that he was a ghost at the line “Hmm. It’s melancholy, more than anything. Like not being invited to a party, and all your friends are there.” I scrolled back up, looked at the dialog so far, and thought “yeah, he’s dead.” And then I went back down, and read the next line, which was “Speaking of which, you were invited to the funeral, weren’t you?” The timing of the more explicit confirmation was exactly right.

  28. ping to David&ZaneLuver,
    My birthday is this month too!!!
    actually its the 19th which is kinds creepy cause yours is the 20th!!
    ok well anyways I absoluly LOVE that short story!
    kinda hard too follow like LaurelArWel said but really really good!!!
    I found that the dead one was the guy and living was a girl, and yes the darling part totally threw me off on the age untill you mentioned 18.

  29. dialog spine is good. ^^ especially for me ‘cos my im better at writing dialog.

    also, you’re posting a tip on my birthday 🙂 cooooooooool!

  30. Love that your giving out tips for writers. It means a lot to me because I am hopping to have a career in writing when I get older, I do write but just amateur stuff, you know fanfiction, but thats as far as I have gone to writing, my friends have been my only readers and they love them, but I am sure I will never be as imaginative and well know in the wrting business as you have been, but I hope I get to meet you one day, and if I do thats will be awesome. And I do hope that if I ever get discovered that I will dedicate my fisrt book to you ,since your books made me interested in reading and have inspire me to write. Before Uglies I didn’t even own a book or even recall finishing a book before I read the Uglies.

  31. Wow. I love the Dialogue Spine idea! That will be very helpful in the weeks to come. I am about two chapters into my NaNoWriMo novel, and this is going to help so much! Thank you for posting this!

  32. Definitely got the ghost wants the other dead vibe – and I think the line ‘I wish I could hold a knife’ is foreshadowing this.
    I didn’t necessarily think it was for revenge though – at least not entirely. I get the feeling that there’s a romantic connection or at the very least a close friendship between the two, and the ghost doesn’t want to be alone/without the living one.
    I think the ghost is a female and the living one a male. The living one seems kind of proud – not wanting to admit he’s afraid etc. which is more male-associated, and the ghost seems a bit more open about emotions and that sort of thing.

  33. I get the feeling that the living one is a girl, and the dead one is a boy. I also think that the girl was driving (why else would she keep saying sorry?) and I think the reason he wants her to go to the funeral so badly is because he knows she’ll die on the way and join him in death, I just think that because I get the feeling he still Love’s her and want to be with her forever….I have no idea how old she is….but I’m guessing at lest in her twenties

  34. Oh my gosh, when i was reading about the dialog tip I was a little skeptical, but it worked SO WELL! I just got out a scene that I was having trouble with, so all I need to do is beef it up with “he said” “she asked” etc.

    Thanks so much, Scott-la! You just saved my poor NaNo-ing butt!

  35. The ending makes me want to cry…
    Actually, my eyes are watering. How could a true friend be so vengeful?!?

  36. All right, so I guess you guys can’t see in my head, so here it is:

    The living one is a girl and she was driving, the dead one is the boy.
    They were not in a relationship, or at least not a true one, because the boy only wants the girl to think he loves her to torture her in a sense. He uses her and it was his fault she was driving so fast and perhaps wasn’t paying as much attention to her driving as she should have.

    It was a nice-ish restaurant, not a diner, sorry. Not in the country, but not in a highly populated area, either.

    Everything the boy did and said was to make the girl hurt and feel guilty (the coffee, the seatbelt, the sweetheart names…)

    And yes, he wanted her to die.

  37. Lisa M, I like the hopeful tone your interpretation has, so I want to say thanks for not making me have to go to bed now with that completely horrific view in my mind.

    Though, the knife thing is rather gruesome…

    The more I read and reflect, the more subtle nuances I notice in your writing, Scott, you are indeed quite skilled. Kudos.

  38. Wow, after reading some other comments, I could totally sense that sinister ending.
    AND, after re-reading the last few dialogue bits, I realize that it’s very likely that the dead one WAS in the passenger seat. It makes much more sense like that.
    And if the dead character DOES somehow kill the character that’s still alive, that’d be totally twisted, but in a very cool way.
    And definitely fitting for halloween.
    It would explain why the dead character was rushing the alive character to go to his funeral. Hmmm…
    Something to think about. I can’t wait for you to comment again, Mr. Westerfeld! I want to know what YOU thought while writing this.

  39. I’m taking a creative writing class this year, and I’m in the middle of several writing projects, along with the rest of life.
    Thanks so much for posting writing tips, I think they will make my life infinitely easier. (:
    I’m looking forward to the rest of the month.

  40. I LOVE writing all-dialogue scenes. My friend hates it, she thinks it’s too confusing. But I love it, and I am SO GLAD to have a real-life author agree with me! 🙂

    As for this story, I started wondering if the no-quotes one was dead somewhere around the “There must be a lot of questions you want to ask” line. And they were dating, but the dead one’s parents didn’t know about it? Is the alive one significantly older than the dead one? I wonder because the dead one said something about the parents being the living one’s “best friends”. HMMM.

    Seriously, I love this stuff. Dialogue ftw.

  41. Also, I think the living, older character was female and the younger, dead character was male.

    And I think the dead one was planning SOMETHING for the funeral. A haunting? Something, anyway.

Comments are closed.