fiction projekts

the home of writing that doesn't fit article format, like traditional prose and angry ranting about dialogue. brainstorming and articles and whatever could probably be found back at projekt

this isn't foundation related but i fucking hate pastebin so it lives here when i want to have people read it

I left Gratumetta university in the ninth year of the war with a change of clothes and around a hundred cet. It's not that I wanted to leave, but the Voivodat had just decreed that universities were no longer exempt from conscription, and the rumor was the press gangs were going to arrive a few days later. I was too much a radical and a coward to face military service, so I was left with four options: flee the country, go into hiding, buy my way out, or get to Etrulmetta, which was still exempt from conscription. Gratumetta was too far from a border to for fleeing the country to be feasible. The war had been going on for nine years and didn't seem like it was ever going to end; hiding long term seemed too daunting. And before he died, Father made sure we spent the last of the Steigemark family fortune on sending me to University in the first place. Etrulmetta was the only real choice I had.

The Militat General had comandeered the last passenger trains for military service about four years previous, so my plan was to get from Gratumetta to Chei Baranti, then take a riverflotte from Chei Baranti to Etrulmetta. It'd take a few days, but if I was lucky I wouldn't have any trouble from the gendarmes. I managed to buy or beg a few rides on carts carrying cargo to Baranti, though each ride cost me. By the time I arrived, I had burned through half my savings.

Baranti was nothing impressive. The river port was the only thing keeping the town from decaying into nothing. The further you got from the docks the fewer people you saw; stevedores and the like were exempt from conscription, but none of the other work in Baranti had been judged vital enough to qualify for a similar treatment. Talking to some of the locals I learned the Militat Quartermarshalcy had swept Baranti almost a dozen times. The thought made me uncomfortable. Those men could've been me, and the thought of the university suffering a similar fate was almost enough to give me nightmares.

It took me a few hours to meet with someone, but I managed to pin down a supremely drunk riverflotte captain in the corner of the most miserable of the taverns that crowded the docks. I wasn't the first to try and get to Etrulmetta to avoid a death sentence in the Militat General, and the riverflotte crews seemed to be able to smell the desperation. The captain's name was Koivisto.

"Who're you?" he asked. He squinted at me, angling his head for a better look so abruptly his battered hat ended up at an awkward angle.

"Doesn't matter. I need a float down the river."

Koivisto slammed back his drink, then leaned in close. The smell of alcohol was overpowering. "See here, boy. I know you. You're," he hiccuped. "You're running. What, 'fraid some civil service might make a man of you yet?"

I resisted the urge to hit him. "I've got fifty cet says you don't care."

"Fifty cet," he said.

"That's correct."

He laughed in my face, spraying me with mildly alcoholic spittle. "Boy, for fifty cet, I'll let you look at my baby. You want to get wet with her, you'll have to do better."

"I have a change of clothes. Look at me. A change of clothes is actually going to go for a lot."

"Hm. You are something of a clothes horse, boy."

I fought the urge to hit him again. "I can read and write Vernacular and Temple. I'm pretty sure your crew doesn't."

"Hm. Yeah. I think that's a decent verdict," Koivisto said, rubbing his chin. "Sell your clothes. Hm. 'Cept that overcoat. I like it. Then give me all you got. Then you got a place on the crew. But you run afoul of anyone, I don't know you. Don't care if it's secular or no."

I motioned for the bartender to come over, witness the deal.

To ride from Chei Baranti to Etrulmetta on a riverflotte, taking the most direct route with a well maintained engine, will take about four days. Koivisto's piece of shit, the Dam Madina, was not taking the most direct route. In fact, it was taking the opposite, stopping at every little hamlet and village to take on cargo for Etrulmetta. And the engine was an old, rusted antique that coughed up enough oily, foul smelling smoke that everything on board felt greasy. The first mate, Mihail, estimated our arrival at Chei Etrul in somewhere between two and three and a half weeks. Maybe four, depending on the weather, and what type of breakdown the engine decided to suffer. It wasn't a question of if it would break, but when.

I spent most of my time reading the crew's letters to them, reading aloud from the Celestial Code, and occasionally writing a mind-numbingly crass letter to a favorite girl, or even occasionally, a wife. Koivisto soon tired of maintaining the log book himself, and forced me into it. I managed to negotiate the return of my overcoat. It wasn't fashionable any longer; double-breasted coats of knee-length fell out of favor years ago, but it was my father's. He was dead, I know he wouldn't have cared what I did with the coat, but I still personally like it.

After about a dozen stops the tiny, decaying hamlets stopped being distinct entities in my mind. They all had the same story. They were all slowly dying because industrial runoff from Etrulmetta was killing the fish, and by extension the fishers, economically and literally; the term the fishers gave it was "factory fish" disease, and it led to bleeding in the stomach that would eventually kill them. On top of that, fishing and selling poorly sealed vats of urine (to be processed into propellant, you see) were both subject to conscription. The Quartermarshalcy swept up most of the population in one go. I listened in horror the first time. By the fifteenth, I wanted to strangle whoever decided to talk to me.

The only other event of note took place in a town called Klymet, primary export sulfur. I made the mistake of wandering too far from the docks to get away from the smell and bumped into a Confessor Eranti. I froze, started to panic. It wasn't a common occurrence, but Confessors Eranti technically had all the powers of the Confessors Judicati, which included turning in deserters.

"Good afternoon, jurist," he said. The Masque Anonym, an impassive porcelain facade, slightly muffled his voice.

"Your honor," I said. I tried to push past him and walk resolutely towards something, so that he'd stop bothering me. Unhappily, I noticed that all the places I could feasibly be going were closed due to lack of help. Except the women's boutique. Shit.

"Such a hurry! Where are you going?"

"I'm. Um," Fuck. I thought. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. "I'm just trying to get away from the smell. Sulfur and I don't agree, your honor."

"You shipped in on that Dam Madina, correct?" I nodded. "Then you should be used to it by now. The Dam Madina stops in Klymet on all her runs."

"That's true, your honor," I said. I actually had no idea if it was, but I decided to try and force it. "But I'm new, helping Captain Koivisto manage the books. But the sulfur agitates my lungs."

"I see," the Confessor said. "I'm sorry to hear about your condition. A word of advice. The vapors around Chei Etrul are particularly harsh, and one of my colleagues suffers a similar ailment. But, and this is fascinating, if you urinate on a rag…"

Relief pulsed through me. We exchanged pleasantries after a short conversation on the amazing qualities of piss. I decided to just cut my losses and head back to the Dam Madina, suffer through the sulfur smell, and try very hard not to try out what the Confessor had mentioned.

How to Write Dialogue Without Sounding Like a Twat

I've read a bunch of articles on this site in a very short period of time, and something has struck me: most of the dialogue on this site fucking sucks. I've done a lot of reading on the act of writing fiction, and personally, I consider dialogue my strongest aspect as an aspiring writer. But I mean, I get it. It's a collaborative fiction wiki in the style of a detached, clinical research report. Dialogue isn't up there on the "things to do list" when you've got to consider evoking some kind of emotional response within the confines of a pretty alien way of putting things. But interviews, audio logs, exploration reports all can give an article impact it would have otherwise lacked. 362, 455, 087 and others are decent articles made excellent by the inclusion of interviews, audio logs, etc. done right. The problem is, a lot of them aren't done right, and that can backfire horribly.

Some of this will sound really obvious to people. That's fine, this is just an overview of how to write dialogue without sounding like you don't have a good grasp on how people actually communicate. I'm not going to go over stylistic choices or the mechanics of quotation marks and punctuation. Stop reading it if you think you've got it already. Or don't! You might learn something.

Dialogue has a few considerations to take into account with regard to its quality.

Does this communicate what the character needs to communicate?

Not many people have issues with this. Seriously, this is like, the most basic thing. You probably don't need help here.

Does this sound natural?

Once whatever needs to be communicated is out there, take a look at it. If you went to a coffee shop or whatever and just sat and listened to people talk, would your dialogue sound out of place1? How's the rhythm?

Alright, if you've done any reading on the mechanics of writing fiction, rhythm is a concept that comes up a lot and is supposed to be very important. And it is, but it's also really easy to understand. All "good rhythm" does is make the line sound natural. To test for rhythm, read the line out loud. Does it flow well? Is the word choice solid? Does it sound like a person in real life could have said this? If the answer is no, you did it wrong and need to rewrite the line. This requires an understanding of how people talk, how they phrase things, and in what contexts. I know, we're on the internet so odds are interacting with people isn't a thing you're real big on, but bear with me.

Let's take an example from the SCP-455 Exploration Log. If you haven't read 455 (which is awesome and you should), it's a big derelict cargo ship that is larger on the inside than it is on the outside and also has a vaguely malevolent force and also temporal distortion. That doesn't sound too interesting, but Gears wrote a fantastic supplementary log detailing the teams sent in to explore the thing. Fantastic, except for a few really bad lines, most notably this:

HQ: DOWN? They go DOWN? What the flaming shit is going… okay… sweet Dapper Jesus of the Gentlemen's Club.

Alright. This right here? This is what pushed me to write this down. This single line shattered my immersion and torpedoed any enjoyment I might've gotten from the rest of the piece.

Read those sentences out loud. Try to imagine that you're a field commander in a high stress situation.

  • First: All caps for emphasis. This is a general writing thing, but I fucking hate it. There are several other ways to show emphasis without caps. All caps are bad. Don't do this.
  • "What the flaming shit" doesn't sit well with me. Does it sit well with you? Probably not. I'm not sure what it's trying to tell me, other than use profanity for emphatic effect. That's okay. I do it a lot. But this particular phrasing is just so off and out of place it throws everything else off. It sounds like something a college freshmen who thinks he's more clever than he actually is would say to show everyone at anime club just how clever and "wacky" he is. It's not terrible, but it's also an example of inconsistent characterization, which I'll get to later.
  • "sweet Dapper Jesus of the Gentlemen's Club" is, without much hyperbole, one of the worst lines I have ever read. There are so many reasons why this is bad. First off, who the fuck says things like this? Do you know anyone, who in the heat of the moment, would bust this out? In a stressful situation, could you believe a person took the time to say this? Christ, it's like the college freshman from the last example but so, so much worse. It's obviously an expletive, though, like "fuck" or "Jesus Christ", but unlike these, it doesn't have the brevity. Just read it out loud. Roll the phrase around in your mouth a bit. You can't really ever see anyone actually saying this, can you? It's overly wordy, it doesn't flow, and it doesn't even bring up an interesting or amusing image like other long winded profanity can. It just. Sucks.

Let's try to rewrite this in a manner that is less awful, but still communicates the same information with the same tone.

HQ: Down? They go down? What the hell is going… okay… fucking Christ.

Same bewilderment, same exasperated tone, but now it also sounds like a thing someone would actually say. There's nothing lost in what it's communicating (unless Gears was trying to communicate that the commander is actually an AI who learned English from Internet forums), but it flows more naturally. This actually extends out to all prose, but I'm just talking about dialogue. But seriously, read all your writing out loud at least once (or better yet, have someone else do it) just to make sure that nothing sounds really unnatural without intending to.

As an aside, native speakers don't speak Perfect Grammatically Correct English. They speak English. If you fuck up grammar or have your writing strewn with sentence fragments throughout the dialogue, it's okay, so long as it sounds natural.

Is what this character said consistent with the context?

Think about how you talk in normal conversation: how you talk when you're stressed, depressed, happy, how you talk to your friends, your boss, your significant other. There's context, and you use a different vocabulary and phrasing depending on that context. This applies to every single person on the planet. Everyone who uses language has an idea of context, and has an idea of what's believable in a certain context. So when I see something like the log from SCP-069, I die a little. Here's what I mean:

Agent Messmer: [Hushed] This is the most incredible thing I've seen…
Agent O'Neil: Steven! What the hell is going on in there? Respond!
The sound of roughly 100 people speaking commences, speaking in what linguistics experts have identified as being a form of Sumerian.
[Translation]: [INDECIPHERABLE]…cannot contain me forever.
Agent Messmer: What the fuck! This thing… You're alive?
[Translation]: Human. You have come unprepared.
Agent Messmer: What the fuck langua… [Agent Messmer begins screaming at this point, continuing to do so for 1 minute and 13 seconds, after which the recording cuts to static.

The context is that Agent Messmer is exploring a big creepy bunker complex built thousands of years ago. A big, creepy, Bronze Age bunker is more "greatest archeological discovery of the century" than "dangerous thing the Foundation gets involved with", so of course there's a Bad Thing at the bottom. Messmer runs into the Bad Thing and. This is the exchange. What the hell?

You're in a dark, unexplained subterranean structure that seems far beyond what mankind was capable of at the time. You've come into a much larger room than the rest, obviously somehow significant, and are faced with an entity that speaks fluent ancient Sumerian like how Freddy Mercury sings: a whole mess of voices at once, saying the same thing. You're faced with a long-dead nightmare-god from ancient Sumer, or whatever, that some dudes in the Bronze Age thought was so horrible they learned a bunch of anachronistic building techniques specifically to seal it away. And your reaction is to ask what language it's speaking? Are you fucking kidding me? Who is confronted with this thing and decides that is the appropriate response? I could see Messmer maybe spewing profanity like a burst sewer pipe while attempting to run away. Maybe he remembers his job and tries to explain what he's seeing to O'Neil back topside. Maybe he's awestruck by the beauty of the thing. These are believable. What we got, not so much.

So yeah, context. Messmer or O'Neil is probably thinking "What language is that" in some unused part of their brain that isn't paralyzed by wonder and/or terror. But who would voice that? To what end? There are more pressing things, especially in this context, to mention other than your speculation about the language it's speaking.

Is the line consistent with the character?

Okay, this is a less important point that the others, simply because the medium in which we're working. You're generally not going to have any noticeable characterization in a short interview or during the exploration of Terrible Place. But make sure that the characters are consistent within those short snippets we get to see. Case in point, the excellent interview from SCP-507:

507-A: Good god, I know. Once there was this guy with a huge ass smile-

507-B: You met him too?

507-A: Nearly soiled myself.

Based on the description of 507 from the article itself, he's apparently an unremarkable white dude except that he travels to alternate dimensions at random. This is a conversation between two alternate reality 507s, who presumably are pretty similar to the actual 507 (they remark on how little their personal lives seem to change despite drastically different changes in their own dimensions). My question is this: Is someone who would use the term "huge ass" as an adjective likely to use the term "soiled"? That doesn't strike me as particularly consistent with the style of dialogue from both 507s already established earlier in the interview. It pulls me back from the narrative and makes me think "really? He's going to go for 'soiled' over 'shat' or whatever?" It's pretty clear to me that the author doesn't have a "voice" for 507, and is just throwing out, you know, whatever. Yeah, there could be an in-character explanation (differences in culture due to alternate dimensions resulting in different vernacular or whatever) but since it isn't mentioned within the piece, we're left with what is in the piece. This is Bad Dialogue, which sucks because the rest of the interview is pretty interesting from an exposition standpoint.

Pretty much, dialogue isn't that hard to write if you have a good understanding of the way people communicate, and it's even easier if you have a clear idea who the characters are and how they'd react to things before you start writing. Again, limitations of the medium, but let's take a look at some really, really well done dialogue.

SCP-362 is a perfect example of consistency within a dialogue. There's an interview log. It's pretty long, but it is fantastic. With no physical descriptions, the reader is told, through word choice, phrasing and their reactions, everything they need to know about the two characters, and it's completely believable and consistent. D-1022 is pretty obviously to me a white male in his middle twenties at the oldest. I know this because his reactions and dialogue are very similar to pretty much every twentysomething white guy I know personally, including myself. Doctor Censored is pretty obviously older, maybe late fifties, who doesn't quite grasp the enthusiasm the current generation throws into nostalgia for kid's television and just wants to get through the test. This is all apparent after maybe six lines. It's obvious that PaulSharke knew exactly what the hell he was trying to get across here and exactly how to do it.

Now, I'm not saying "map out all your characters no matter how minor" because for the most part, that shit just doesn't matter. You're writing an interview. It's probably going to be less than a thousand words. But at least have a general idea of what each character is like, even if that idea is as shallow as "Dude A is very professional, Dude B is prone to overreact, Dude C is scared, Dude D is actually a horrible monster". It can go a long way towards making dialogue at least believable.

But I'm writing prose! What now?

Well, everything I've gone over already applies to traditional prose, but more. With prose, character development becomes a thing you actually need to do. And there's some new concepts, mostly with the, uh, "dialogue infrastructure" if that term makes any sense. Let's grab another example, this time from the Foundation Fanfiction Tale, In the draft

With shady energy, he ran towards SCP-500's room, where another stone-faced guard blocked his path.

"You do not have clearance to enter this room."

"JOSEPH! IT'S ME!" Yelled the doomed man in pain, the crystallized gangrene already reaching his elbow.

"You cannot pass, Sean. I'm sorry. You need to go to the Shakedown room."

"NO! You know what happens to the people infected with 409. I MUST get the Panacea!"

Our context is this: A researcher is infected with whatever SCP that turns you into crystals or whatever. He makes a break for a sample of SCP-500 (the cure-all pill) and is stopped by a guard, who tells him "blah blah clearance whatever."

There are a lot of things that aren't good here. Let's go in order then.

With shady energy, he ran towards SCP-500's room, where another stone-faced guard blocked his path.

What the fuck is shady energy? What kind of description is that? This whole sentence lacks any urgency. I imagine this is kind of a tense situation, right? A dude is turning into a pile of quartz or whatever and he needs his medicine. So why is this sentence so passive? But I'm writing about dialogue, so I'm not even going to start.

"You do not have clearance to enter this room."

This is kind of okay. It's a bit stilted, really. I'm not getting like, "human guard" vibes from that line, more "beep boop input password to continue," and that's a bad thing. Native English speakers tend to overuse contractions, so it's jarring when you read something like this. But okay, maybe the guard is just really formal.

"JOSEPH! IT'S ME!" Yelled the doomed man in pain, the crystallized gangrene already reaching his elbow.

This. This is where shit starts getting bad. First off, capitals for emphasis: it's lazy, it doesn't look good, and you're just beating the reader over the head with it. Yeah, the dude is infected with a terrible disease that'll turn him into Space Godzilla. We know he's screaming. We get a bunch of exclamation points, which is generally frowned upon, but it's really a stylistic thing, so whatever. "Yelled the doomed man in pain"

"Yelled the doomed man in pain"

Look at those fucking words. Do you know how many words you need for this dialogue attribution? One. Just one. It's said.

Dialogue descriptors like "said," "asked," and "yelled" pretty much exist only to identify who just spoke that line. Professional writers and people who understand what makes professional writing, well, professional will tell you that the fewer dialogue identifiers you use, the better. And the only one you should be using is "said."

Straight up, if you use a different attribution than "said," it communicates some things. When I'm reading things with my writer's hat on, I look at this and see an author who isn't confident enough in the line they just wrote to convey the character's emotions convincingly. They have to tell me this guy is yelling, that he's totally boned, and that turning into a crystal hurts, nevermind that it's already been established earlier in the story. When I look at those words purely as a reader, they completely fuck the rhythm of the piece. I have to take the time to read a bunch of extra words that shouldn't even be there if you do your job as an author properly. Read that shit out loud. "'JOSEPH! IT'S ME!' Yelled the doomed man in pain, the crystallized gangrene already reaching his elbow." Did you read it out loud, or did you just look at it and outright refuse? I hope you refused, because otherwise I'll feel pretty awful about inflicting that on you.

Why shouldn't you use other dialogue attributions? Well, a few reasons. Most important is what I mentioned above: your dialogue should be descriptive enough that the reader fills in whether or not they're yelling or in pain or whatever automatically. The less you as a writer have to get in the way of the characters, the better you're doing. Secondly, people have been reading "said" as a dialogue attribution since, like, they could read. At this point, it's practically invisible. Reading that he "groaned," he "growled," he "raved," whatever, is different enough that the reader sort of has to do a double take. It torpedoes any rhythm the piece may have accrued and is generally just very distracting. Also, if you have to use an adverb (like "he growled menacingly") rethink the line you just wrote, because adverbs do pretty much everything else I mentioned in this paragraph, but worse.

"You cannot pass, Sean. I'm sorry. You need to go to the Shakedown room."

"NO! You know what happens to the people infected with 409. I MUST get the Panacea!"

Think about when you have a conversation with someone. How often do you use their name? For emphasis, probably. Not very often. It's just not a thing that comes up in conversation, you know? I'm talking to you. You are the only goddamn person I'm talking to. Why would I say your name? We both fucking know it. Ah, but! What if our conversation was written by an author who was squeamish for whatever reason about using a cold introduction2 and opted instead for some forced as hell sounding dialogue to cram in some names? It's bad writing in general. Plus, this guard still sounds like a goddamn robot. And we go out with some final capitalized emphasis and really very awkward phrasing.

I'm going to apply what I've been harping about for the last few thousand words, and save that exchange as best I can while maintaining the overall tone and the information conveyed to the reader.

He sprinted towards SCP-500's room, fueled by adrenaline, panic, despair. Another guard, impassive, blocked his path.

"You don't have clearance. I can't let you into this room."

"Joseph, it's me!" Sean said. Crystallized gangrene already reached his elbow.

"You know I can't let you past. I'm sorry. You need to go to Shakedown."

"No! You know what happens to people infected with 409. I need the Panacea."

Now, Joseph isn't a robot, Sean isn't a twat, the sentences of non-dialogue have been cleaned up to be more active and add some urgency, and the reader doesn't want to put their eyes out. Everyone is happy! I mean probably except Sean. He turns into a crystal.


There are obviously some aspects I didn't cover because I'm either not confident in my ability to elaborate them well or because they're just something you pick up over time or because this article/tutorial/desperate pleading with writers is about dialogue and nor prose writing in general. One of these aspects that is particularly relevant is monsters.

Writing for inhuman things is a challenge, because they're not human. Regardless, some inhuman things can still communicate with humans, using human language, which means that writing that down becomes somewhat important. I'm not so great with this, but I'll just throw out a few broad concepts and let everyone else worry about writing monsters.

  • Things that aren't human probably don't have the best grasp of human interaction. This is important. A big creepy monster is fine. A big creepy monsters that talks has a lot of potential to be "not fine". Making a non-human's dialogue too human really damages the perception that it isn't like us. There are ways to make sure this doesn't happen; fucking up its speech patterns are a solid bet. Odd phrasing, broken English (like "using rigid to mean difficult" broken, not "AMERICAN NOT KNOW RIFLE IF RIFLE BIT ASS" broken), having the absolute wrong reaction to things3, repetition of basic concepts, all these things are good. That's the problem though. I want to add more here, but coming up with things that are actually, you know, inhuman, is kind of a pain. All writers are, after all, human.

The best example I can think of comes from an actually published author, which isn't really fair, but it is an excellent example of how to do inhuman dialogue. China Miéville wrote a creature into his fantasy works called a Weaver. It's a hyper-sentient pandimensional spidergod that sees all events, present, past, future, at once as strands of an infinitely complex and infinitely beautiful spiderweb. It unceasingly monotones a bizarre stream of consciousness rhyming slang. It's utterly inhuman, yet communicates with varying degrees of effectiveness. An example:


That's from page 396 of the American printing of Perdido Street Station.

It's obviously trying to say something, but doesn't seem able to parse its thoughts in a way humans can easily understand because it's not human. That's what I mean when writing for inhuman consciousnesses or monsters. Obviously, Miéville is very good at this. It's what he does for a living. But adapting that same style of "okay, it just said something, but I don't have any idea what the fuck" can't hurt if you're writing an interview between a researcher and say, a sentient, carnivorous filing cabinet from beyond space.

  • Of course, the opposite is true as well. I remember a dude in chat who asked us to talk about his draft of what really boiled down to one of the villains from Hellraiser. He wanted to get across that it just didn't really "get" human concepts, and illustrated this with some truly grating hyphenated words. "Razor-storm", "love-gift", "torture-priest", "Pain-Lord". Yes, these communicate that the thing doesn't quite "get" human language, but also communicate that the writer is going waaaaay overboard to try and get you to realize that.
  • Monsters make threats. That can be used very well. However, really specific threats fall flat because they're not, uh, threatening. "I'm going to tear our your spine, human!" is great. It's short, kind of gruesome, gets across everything in as few words as possible. "I'm going to crack open your ribs, tear out your heart and eat it while you bleed to death, human!" is not good! Sorry, Terrible Monster, I fell asleep while you were droning on about hearts! Try harder next time!

This guide or whatever you want to call it won't have you writing dialogue that Tarantino would be jealous of, but it will stop you from writing things like "sweet Dapper Jesus of the Gentlemen's Club" and having it make it through your internal editing process. Of course, you can obviously ignore all of this if the character is supposed to sound like that. Just make sure not all your characters sound like that.

Dialogue's an important thing, and it deserves more attention than I feel most writers on this site give it.

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