Writing Advice #12: Dialogue Part 5

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!

 


So. More dialogue, eh?

I hope most of you, by now, have noticed something about those first three dialogue blogs. Namely, that I avoided using any sort of narrative, including even “he said” or any other sorts of speech tags. I know I made a point of mentioning it a couple of times, but I want to repeat it here.

Why?

Well, because it’s sort of the POINT.

By doing those blogs the way I did, I wanted to force you guys to think in terms of pure dialogue. One mistake that new writers often make is cramming too much narrative into the corners and crevices around their dialogue. The result is something that was best described to me by an agent several years ago, when he was critiquing a novel of mine: “You’ve got all of this nonsense woven in through your dialogue and it’s choking the dialogue like vines.”

Think about that when you write dialogue. Are you choking your words? Are you growing vines in the midst of your dialogue?

Check this out:

 

Damon walked into the room. His father sat by the fireplace. “Mom said you wanted to see me, Dad,” he said.

His father grunted at him and stared into the fire. He sighed. “It’s about college, son,” he fretted. “I don’t know how…” He paused and cracked his knuckles. “I don’t know how we’re going to afford it.”

Damon swallowed hard and paced back and forth. The fire in the fireplace was filling the room with moving shadows and he could barely see his father’s face. “What will we do, Dad?” he asked. A log popped suddenly. Damon jerked in surprise, then calmed himself.

Dad didn’t answer for a moment. Then he said, “You might need to stay home for a year. And work.”

Damon came closer to his father’s chair. He sat down in the chair his mother usually sat in. “I can’t do that, Dad!” he protested. “That’ll ruin my plans!”

OK, you’ve probably noticed that this bit was pretty badly written. Actually, though, the dialogue itself isn’t bad. It’s all the crap around it that’s causing problems. You need to look at your dialogue-intense scenes and ask yourself, “Do I really NEED all of this action?” For example, if Damon jerks in surprise and then immediately calms himself, who cares? The sum of events is the status quo ante, so why even bother describing it?

In the theater, it’s called “blocking.” If you’ve ever been in or been involved in a play or movie, you know what that is: Blocking is the actions the actors take while speaking. Blocking is crucial in movies and plays because it’s dead boring watching two people stand on a stage or in a movie frame and blather at each other. (In movies, the boredom can be alleviated by switching camera angles, of course. Next time you’re watching a scene on TV where two people talk, count how many time the camera switches. Then try to imagine how boring that exact same scene would have been if the camera had never moved at all.)

But here’s the problem with blocking: It’s not necessary in prose! Unless someone is taking an action that is CRUCIAL to the dialogue, you can leave it out most of the time. Here’s an example of GOOD blocking:

“Don’t move.” He raised the gun. “I’m serious.”

This, however, is BAD blocking:

“Don’t move.” He strummed his fingers on his thigh. “I’m serious.”

Maybe you felt like you needed a pause there. Maybe you thought the guy talking needed to do SOMETHING. No. At least, he didn’t need to strum his fingers. Again: Who cares?

“Don’t move. I’m serious.”

And I knew he was.

That gets across the sense of menace you’re looking for.

Rewriting our original scene, we get…

Dad was sitting by the fireplace when Damon came in. “Mom said you wanted to see me, Dad.”

His father grunted and stared into the fire. “It’s about college, son. I don’t know how… I don’t know how we’re going to afford it.”

“What will we do, Dad?”.

Dad didn’t answer for a moment. “You might need to stay home for a year. And work.”

“I can’t do that, Dad! That’ll ruin my plans!”

Still not great, but good God, does it flow better! All you need here is the basics — the fireplace, Dad sitting and not looking up at his son. Everything else can and SHOULD come across in the dialogue. No need for “he fretted,” for example, because Dad’s hesitation and staring into the fire SHOWS us he’s fretting. No need to say “he protested” when Damon’s dialogue SHOWS us he’s protesting. And does it REALLY matter if Damon sits down in Mom’s chair? Unless you’re setting something up for later, no. (And there are more elegant ways to get Damon into that chair and to show him in that chair than in the first example.)

See, a lot of writers think that they have to mimic the movements and actions of TV or movies on the page. Which means LOTS of fidgeting and moving around and noticing the way the air conditioning makes the drapes move as if blown by the wind and describing each and every time someone picks up a coffee cup or takes a sip from a water bottle.

WHO THE HELL CARES?

Seriously. If it’s important to the plot or to the character, then fine; include it. But otherwise, just ditch it. It’s just more literary vines choking the life out of your dialogue.

Think about dialogue in real life, when you’re talking to a friend. Do you stop to notice how much he blinks or if the car up the street is backing into a parking space or whatever? No. You just talk. And when you DO notice those things, what happens? That’s right — you lose track of the conversation. You get distracted.

Why would you think the same thing WOULDN’T happen with dialogue on the printed page?

This is one of the best exercises I can think of when you’re editing your own work: Comb through the dialogue and look for bits of blocking you can cut. Trust me — you’ll find a LOT there to cut.

Remember — in the visual/audio media, we can interpret actions and dialogue simultaneously. In prose, one ends up undercutting the other because we have to read them one after the other. Movies are not books; books are not movies.

Speech tags are a related but somewhat separate issue. You may think that you HAVE to use things like, “he wondered” because, well, how else is the reader supposed to know the character is wondering?

Duh — maybe the dialogue should give a clue to that? 🙂

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the widely-held notion that the ONLY two dialogue tags you need are “said” and “asked,” but I do believe that 99% of your tags can be handled with those two OR WITH NO TAG AT ALL. If a character is wondering something, then no doubt it’s because he’s concerned or curious or confused; we should be able to tell that from the words he says, or the actions he commits before, during, and/or after his speech. You shouldn’t need to say “he wondered” at the end of his dialogue.

So. When you have characters talking back and forth, take a look — make sure that you really need all of those “he said” and “she responded” lines. You’ll find that the story moves along much better without them…and you lose nothing in the process.

And for God’s sake, don’t go overboard with the verbs in your speech tags. There’s no prize for purple prose.

As usual, post any questions, comments, flames below. 🙂

Next week: We’re done with dialogue, so we’ll move on to some new stuff! See you then!

(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)

Writing Advice #11: Dialogue Part 4

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!

 


“Gonna.”

OK, I’m not going to do a dialogue this week. Because, quite frankly, I’m not sure how to get across this week’s topic in dialogue.

Which… You know what? That’s sort of a lesson in and of itself: Dialogue is great, but it’s not always the best way to get something across to the reader.

Let’s face it: If you have someone start talking — out loud — about their deepest, darkest secrets and fears, it’s a little weird. That’s not to say you can’t pull it off, but those aren’t the sorts of things people usually talk about. Usually people keep those to themselves unless you’ve got some sort of confessional scene going on, or a major climactic moment.

But if the book’s just starting out and you want us to know that the main character was abused as a child… Well, odds are it’s not the sort of thing to blurt out in dialogue.

Dialogue can accomplish a lot and it’s important to get it right, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of your story. The narrative (you know — everything that ISN’T between quotation marks) plays its part, too. One of the things you’ll need to learn as a writer is when to use dialogue and when to use narrative.

I wish I could give you a checklist for this, but I can’t. You just need to figure it out as you move through the story. I’ve read stories that had very little dialogue that managed to pull it off and make it work. I’ve read stories that are nothing BUT dialogue and also manage to pull it off. I’ve also read stories of each type that fall flat.

This is where those million bad words come in, gang. It’s all about practice, about finding that right blend of dialogue and narrative that communicates your characters, your theme, your plot, your STORY.

OK, so. “Gonna.” Why did I use it last week, especially after spending a lot of time explaining why it’s not even necessary to use things like “gonna?”

 

Remember: in that same blog, I wrote:

The job of dialogue is not to replicate the SOUNDS of speech. The job of dialogue is communicate character and information in an entertaining and realistic fashion. Note that I said ‘realistic,’ not ‘real.’

We’re not trying to MIMIC reality when we write dialogue — we’re trying to EVOKE reality.

And that’s why I said “gonna.” Yes, yes, if I were faithfully transcribing words for my dialogue, I would probably never, ever have to type the words “going to” because people rarely enunciate like that. BUT…we don’t write like we talk! We write to be READ, not HEARD.

By saying “gonna” there, I was showing you that you can evoke without going overboard. Look at my line of dialogue again:

I don’t blame you. There’s a fine line between realism in dialogue and going overboard. If you just try to transcribe what people would ‘really’ say, you’re gonna end up with a mess.

Now, let’s be honest here: If my goal was to produce a line of dialogue that “sounded real,” it would have ended up with something like this:

I don’t blameya ’cause there’s a fine line between realism and goin’ overboard. If you tryta transcribe what people’d ‘really’ say, you’re gonna end up with a mess.

Or any of a million other possible permutations. None of which would have been as readable, as instructive, or as well-constructed. But by throwing in that “gonna,” I could communicate to you that the “Barry” character was being a little less formal. Sort of like a schoolteacher who chills out a little bit and throws a wink at the class in the middle of a lecture.

You can get ALL of that from a single word choice.

Well, wait. Not really. I lied. It’s not the single word choice. It’s that single word IN THE CONTEXT OF WHAT HAS COME BEFORE. When you have a character speak a certain way and then suddenly shift verbal “gears,” like this…

“I love you, darling,” he said. “But that just ain’t enough.”

That’s a REALLY clumsy example, but I made it clumsy on purpose, to illustrate my point, sort of like when you slow down a tape to watch something carefully. Between the formality of “I love you, darling” and the use of “ain’t,” you can almost HEAR a sigh of resignation. You can almost SEE this guy’s face falling in dejection as he reveals the truth.

It would probably work better with the judicious use of narrative, such as…

He gazed at her, holding her hands tightly in his. “I love you, darling,” he said. He swallowed hard and dropped her hands. “But that just ain’t enough.”

Anyway, the point stands.

But here’s the most important thing about that “gonna,” the thing I want all of you to take away with you: I didn’t really think ANY of this stuff consciously when I wrote it! I just did it and then I realized I’d done it and decided to make it a homework assignment. And the more I stared at it, the more I started to think, “WHY did I do that? What did I communicate?”

See, your goal as a writer is to get to the point where a lot of these things happen unconsciously. It was only in retrospect that I realized what that “gonna” could and did mean.

That’s the point of the million bad words, really. To internalize all of these rules and ideas so that you don’t have to think about them — they just happen. And you can look back on your writing after the fact and say, “Whoa! I did THAT? When did I think of that?” And the answer, of course, is that you didn’t think of it consciously — your backbrain did the hard work for you and shoved it out through your fingers to the keyboard.

That’s one of the best feelings in the world when you’re a writer. 🙂

Just so you know — there will be one more blog on dialogue. Next week we’ll discuss blocking and speech tags (“he said,” etc.).

After that, I’ll be talking about a whole BUNCH of issues: Point of View, cinematic prose, “writing as reality,” stuff like that. And yes — don’t worry — we’ll also get to the biggie: The Path to Publication!

Geektastic!

There’s a new YA anthology on the shelves, titled Geektastic. With a title like that, it just has to be good. And, indeed, it is.

The roster of participants is like a who’s who of young adult writers. You want John Green and David Levithan and Scott Westerfeld and Holly Black and Cecil Castelucci and Garth Nix and Sara Zarr and M.T. Anderson and a whole huge chunk of YA-y goodness crammed between two geeky covers? Sure you do. Who wouldn’t? Well, now you’ve got it. The aforementioned folks plus a gaggle more, all together, all writing about truly insane levels of geekitude. Holly and Cecil gathered everyone together, rode herd on ’em, and made sure the whole thing was nice and pretty. (Well, as pretty as geeks get. Let’s not be ridiculous here.)

I somehow managed to slip into this geek-fest, with a little story titled “The Truth About Dino Girl.” For those of you who care about such things, this story takes place at South Brook High School. In the chronology of things, it’s set shortly after the end of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, but it doesn’t have those characters in it, so don’t worry about the timeline. Just enjoy the very strange evolution of Katya, also known as Dino Girl.

You can find Geektastic in all the usual places.

Writing Advice #10: Dialogue Part 3

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!

 


“Hey, there, blog.”

“Hi, Barry.”

“Well, this is sort of interesting, isn’t it?”

“What’s interesting? The fact that NOBODY did the homework on last week’s blog?”

“Yeah, what do you make of that?”

“Not sure.”

“I’ll tell you something — it’s either that I totally kicked ass and rendered everyone speechless…”

“Or…?”

“Or people were intimidated by the homework assignment and decided not to comment as a result.”

“Hmm. Or maybe no one’s reading.”

 

“Now THAT’S a depressing thought…”

“What’s up this week?”

“More dialogue, obviously. We’re going to talk a little bit about how to construct dialogue.”

“Oh, goody!”

“That’s a good example right there: ‘Oh, goody.’ Why use those words? They communicate something, don’t they? If the character speaking is young, they fit right in and show youthful enthusiasm. If the character is older, they could communicate sarcasm…or perhaps that the character in question is just regressing.”

“Sounds like a throwback to last week’s discussion on word choice. Man, that stuff’s important! How do you decide which words to use?”

“You want to think about your characters, obviously. Here are some things to consider when you write dialogue: Age. Background. Education. Sex. Marital status. Position of power in the relationship. All of these things inform the word choice, rhythm, and flow in dialogue.”

“Can you give examples?”

“Sure. Let’s start with age. If you’re writing an older character, you want to avoid contemporary slang and the like. For example, a fifty-year-old grandfather is unlikely to bust out with ‘Sweet!’ or ‘As if!’ If you use those expressions for that character, it’s going to sound weird and it’s going to throw your reader out of the story.”

“Which is bad.”

“God, yes! Once readers are thrown out of the story, you risk losing them forever. Which means they don’t finish reading the story and they don’t tell their friends to go buy it and read it. Not good at all!

“So avoid those sort of dialogue ‘anachronisms.’ That’s not to say that Grandpa won’t EVER say ‘Sweet!’ I mean, you could use it to show that Grandpa is trying to communicate with his grandson, for example. Or you could use it for comedic effect. But be aware of it.”

“What about the other end of the spectrum? What if you’re trying to write kids, but you don’t know slang?”

“Slang is overrated. If you read through my books, you won’t see me using a lot of contemporary slang, but people STILL say that I have a great ear for teen dialogue. You know why?”

“Why?”

“Glad you asked. Here’s why: Rhythm and flow. The second and third parts of our dialogue triangle from last week. Kids have a certain way of speaking. They tend to hesitate in the early stages and then burst out into run-ons and long stretches once they have their wind. They interrupt themselves a lot and they stop and stall with things like ‘like’ and ‘you know,’ but once they get past that, they just blast ahead. That’s just their natural rhythm and there’s no need to go into reasons why — listen to a bunch of teens when you get a chance.”

“But why don’t you use slang?”

“Because it gets outdated too quickly. If I threw in a lot of slang, the book would seem old after six months. Stick to the tried-and-true. Get the rhythm and flow right and no one will even notice the slang or lack thereof. You don’t want to replicate every last ‘um’ and ‘like,’ but you throw enough in there to give people a feel for the natural rhythm of the conversation.

“By the same token, adults tend to be more stilted in their speech. It’s not that they’re boring, necessarily, but they’ve just been doing it longer. They pick their words a little more carefully…because they’ve probably been burned in the past. Adults are more likely to trail off and leave something unsaid or stop themselves halfway through a sentence.”

“But those are just guidelines, right?”

“God, yes! There are exceptions to EVERY rule, and I’m not even claiming these are rules to begin with! These are just notions for you to think about when you write dialogue. That’s the great thing about dialogue, really — a general lack of rules. Depending on who’s speaking, you can break rules of grammar, diction, even punctuation when you’re living between those quotation marks. You can get away with a lot, but here’s something to remember: A little goes a long way.”

“Back to ‘um’ and ‘like’ and ‘you know,’ right?”

“Bingo. Don’t overdo it. It’s tempting, but don’t. A lot of writers really try to go overboard with dialogue, especially when they want a character to stand out. Dialect is one of the worst and best examples of this: A writer will decide that a character, for example, is from the South. Or speaks English as a second language. And suddenly you see a character speaking like this:”

“Wee-all, dahlin, Ah declaha! Y’all are just a goh-juss example of a young lady comin out at her pahty!”

“Yikes.”

“Yeah, it’s borderline offensive.”

“But… Well, I hate to ask, but… Isn’t that sort of the way some Southern people sound?”

“Sure, but so what? The job of dialogue is not to replicate the SOUNDS of speech. The job of dialogue is communicate character and information in an entertaining and realistic fashion. Note that I said ‘realistic,’ not ‘real.’ There’s a difference! If your character’s Southern drawl is important, then you can communicate it with some mentions in narrative, like…”

“Hi, there, sweetheart.” He dragged it out, his Southern drawl smothering her like too-hot syrup.

“In that instance, you get across a couple of things — the Southern drawl, the speaker’s character, AND the listener’s response to that character.”

“But… That involved narrative. We haven’t discussed that yet.”

“We will soon. I just wanted to show you that there are other ways to communicate. Dialogue is great and can communicate a LOT, but it can’t always do so alone. Nor should it.

“Another way to get across dialect is to pick a particular word and really abuse it! Stephen King does this and it’s a great trick. For example, say you’ve got a character from New Jersey and he drops his ‘rs’ a lot. So ‘fire’ comes out ‘fie-uh’ and ‘spire’ comes out ‘spy-uh’ and so on and so forth. Well, pick one and just use it that way all the time. In your first usage, draw attention to it, like this:”

“I feel like I’m on fire!” he said. It came out “fie-uh,” to Bill’s ears, that north Jersey showing its roots.

“Then, in the future, you can do this on occasion:”

“We didn’t know what to do!” he exclaimed. “Everything around us was on fire!”Fie-uh.

“Believe me, it works. I know it doesn’t look like it, but you have to trust your reader. Just give them a hook and they’ll run with it. Occasional reminders that a character has an accent or speaks a certain way will go a LONG way. Don’t hammer them over the head with it.”

“I don’t know…”

“OK, look: NO ONE speaks with pitch-perfect diction. NO ONE. Take me, for example. I’m a well-educated writer, a guy who makes his living with the precise application of words, but if I were to tell someone that I was going out to the store, it would probably sound like this:”

“Hey, man ‘m goin th’ store!”

“Look at that. It’s a mess. But it’s a pretty accurate transcription of me shouting out to a friend of mine while I run out the door. But would you want to read an entire book filled with that kind of dialogue?”

“Not really.”

“I don’t blame you. There’s a fine line between realism in dialogue and going overboard. If you just try to transcribe what people would ‘really’ say, you’re gonna end up with a mess.”

“Ah! Ah! You just said ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to!'”

“Yes, I did. Can you tell me why?”

“Um…”

“Think about it. And all of you reading — you guys think about it, too. Next week: More dialogue! (We’ll probably have three more of these before moving on, just so you know.) And if you can think of a good reason why I wrote ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to’ in that sentence, post it in the comments.”

Writing Advice #9: Dialogue Part 2

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!

 


“Hello, blog.”

“Yo, B-dawg! Wassup?”

“Um, right…”

“What? Did I do something wrong?”

“Not really, blog. But why are you sounding like a refuge from a nineties rap video?”

“I was just, y’know, trying to keep up the trend from last week. You know, teaching about dialogue WITH dialogue. Showing, not telling…”

“Ah. I see.”

“Did I do it wrong?”

“No, no, not really. Actually, this is a pretty good way for me to dive into some deeper issues regarding dialogue.”

“Yo, that’s totally chill and dope, homey.”

“OK, now you’re just embarrassing yourself.”

“Sorry.”

“Let’s move on. I’m spending a lot of time of dialogue because it’s very important. Also, I’ve been told that I’m pretty good at dialogue, so hopefully what I have to say here will be helpful to everyone out there. I’m going to switch a new paragraph now — stick with me.

“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about HOW to write dialogue — it’s something I just seem to have an ear for, something that I do without really thinking about it much. So when I talk about dialogue, it’s probably going to be a little bit differently than, say, most books or articles written on the subject.”

“That’s OK.”

“Glad you approve. Here we go.

“I see dialogue as composed of three critical components: word choice, rhythm, and flow.”

“What about punctuation?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure — and punctuation. But I’m not going to talk about that because the only punctuation that is SPECIFIC to dialogue was discussed last time, OK?”

“Gotcha.”

“Let’s tackle these things one at a time. Word choice seems pretty obvious from the get-go.”

“That’s vocabulary, right?”

“Not entirely. Vocabulary is the words you have at your disposal. Word choice is when you actively and intentionally select one of those words for a specific purpose. Word choice is really important to dialogue because it can communicate VOLUMES about your characters. Here are some examples:”

 

“I’m hungry.”
“I’m starvin’ like Marvin!”
“I’m famished.”
“My gut is eating itself alive, man.”

“Each of those examples communicates the same idea — the speaker wants something to eat — but the word choice tells you something about the character. Let me repeat something from last week: Take a look at those lines of dialogue and notice how — without telling you WHO is saying these things or HOW they are saying them — you still get an idea of the character. You start to form an image of the speaker in your mind, don’t you? The last guy is sort of tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top. The first guy is boring, maybe whining. The second guy is…who knows, but he’s different, isn’t he? You can tell ALL of them apart. If I wrote a conversation between those four guys you could tell who’s who, in large part just because of the words I’ve chosen. Even 2 and 4 — seemingly identical on the surface — are different. Why does one guy say ‘hungry’ and the other one ‘famished?’ More intriguingly… What if they’re the SAME guy in two different sets of circumstances? In that case, why does he use one word in one instance and the other in, uh, the other?”

“Whoa.”

“See, you can spend a LOT of time thinking about this stuff.”

“How do you know which words to choose?”

“Well, that’s the tough part, quite honestly. That’s where — as the writer — your deep and intimate knowledge of the character comes into play. You have to know how your characters speak and how they distinguish themselves from each other verbally.Everyone has certain ‘pet words’ that they come back to, or favorite expressions they use over and over. These little verbal cues are the sorts of things you want to mimic in your prose. It makes your dialogue seem real. More important, it makes the characters consistent. If you’re writing a super-educated businessman’s dialogue, you’d better steer clear of the MTV lingo unless you have a REALLY good reason for using it. (And if you DO have a good reason for using it and if you pull it off, that will be one hell of a memorable character!).”

“Is there some kind of shortcut to picking the right words for each character?”

“No. It’s just hard work and something you start to develop as you work through your million bad words. When characters are really cemented in your mind, they’ll start to talk on their own. Good dialogue proceeds naturally from good character development. When you dump your characters’ backgrounds, backstories, fears, feelings, and thoughts into a blender, what you should get out is excellent dialogue that is unique to each individual character.”

“All of that from word choice?”

“Word choice AND the second item on our list: rhythm. Rhythm is really important to dialogue. It’s the cadence of speech, the way characters pause and where they break their sentences. Take a look:”

“God, I… I can’t stand it any more! I… I love you, Julie!”
“I have to tell you! I love you, Julie!”
“Julie? I’ve been waiting forever to tell you and I can’t wait any more — I love you!”

“Each line of dialogue communicates the exact same thing, but in a different way. Again, good dialogue communicates character and proceeds FROM character. Our first guy is hesitant, stumbling over himself. He has to spit the words out. Maybe he’s nervous. Maybe he’s on drugs. Maybe he just got hit in the stomach. Whatever the reason, he can’t just SAY it.”

“Oh. Oh, I see how this works. And the second guy… he just plunges ahead. He’s a little boisterous, maybe. He’s excited.”

“Sure, that works. What about the last guy?”

“Well, he hesitates at first, but just for a second. Then it all just comes gushing out of him in a big rush. Like he couldn’t hold it in any more. Or almost like he was checking deep down in himself to make sure it was OK to say it.”

“Wow! OK, that works. That’s rhythm.”

“So word choice is WHAT people say and rhythm is HOW they say it?”

“Not exactly. Word choice is just the words people use. Rhythm is how they string those words together. What people say and how they say it are more appropriately thought of as ideas and grammar, which are important, but by the time you’re writing dialogue, you should have them internalized. If you don’t know what ideas your characters are trying to get across, you need to back up a couple of steps and give some long, deep thinking to your story.

“The cool thing about rhythm is, again, how much it can communicate, how much it can SHOW, without telling. When you have a moment, go back through this dialogue and last week’s and look at the way you and I communicate. The rhythm of our lines of dialogue show that I’m the teacher and you’re the student. My dialogue is written a bit more confidently, with longer sentences and not as many pauses, for example.”

“Oh, cool. I didn’t notice that last week. What about flow, though? What’s that?”

“Flow is when characters exchange dialogue. Flow is like rhythm except instead of applying to a line of dialogue, it applies to the entire conversation. Flow is AWESOME. With flow, you can show time passing, actions occurring, emotions changing… All kinds of stuff, just by the way the conversation moves.”

“Really?”

“Yeah–”

“Seriously?”

“Yes, just like–”

“Come on, are you serious? All of that from flow?”

“Yes, I totally–”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Well, I–”

“I mean, that’s a lot of work for just flow. And I don’t think that…”

“Wait for it…”

“Wait a second.”

“Yes, blog?”

“Are you doing that thing like you did last week? Where you write me a certain way to make a point?”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. But showing you getting agitated and interrupting me constantly helped to make my point, didn’t it? It showed how flow can get across action and emotion.”

“True. Couldn’t you have picked a better example, though?”

“Probably. Sorry.”

“That’s OK.”

“Again, when you have a chance, look back at this conversation and the one before it. You’ll notice that the dialogue has a specific flow to it. It’s very obvious who’s the teacher and who’s the student just from the flow. There will be long stretches, for example, where I do all the talking. When you pipe up, it’s usually to ask a question or point something out.”

“Or be manipulated.”

“Well, yeah, there’s that, too. Even there, we learn something. When I take over your dialogue and warp it, you can tell that something strange has happened, right? Things seem to go off the rails. That’s part of the flow, too.”

“OK, so there are these three critical components. Why are they so critical?”

“Because they make dialogue real! Look, when people read a story, they pay particular attention to the dialogue. Why? Well, a bunch of reasons. Dialogue is easy to read, fun, and offers a break from the narrative voice. When characters talk, that’s usually when something funny or sad or outrageous crops up. Haven’t you noticed that in your favorite books?”

“That’s true. The funniest stuff is usually in dialogue.”

“Ditto for some of the saddest lines. Dialogue is memorable. People like to read it. They’ve been trained to read dialogue very closely because that’s usually where something meaty happens. Plus, they’re used to dialogue because they watch too many movies and too much TV. So they REALLY place a premium on dialogue.”

“I never thought of that before.”

“It’s true. When your dialogue flows, people will keep turning those pages.”

“How do I put it all together, though? How do I make it work?”

“Well, that’s the tough part. That’s where I fall back on the million bad words and developing an ear for dialogue and following your gut and–”

“Oh, come ON! Don’t wuss out now! Not after people have read all the way down here. Give them SOMETHING!”

“Fine. Old writers’ trick: Look around at the people you know. Eavesdrop on perfect strangers. You don’t have to take notes or anything. Just really LISTEN when people talk. We talk so much that we tend not to pay attention to specifics. We just grab what we need in order to respond and then move on. So stop doing that. Focus on the words people use. Listen for their hesitations and for those moments where they start to talk so fast that it’s like their brains are on overload. Listen to how people interrupt each other, finish each other’s sentences, and trail off in the middle of thoughts. Then implement that in your own dialogue.”

“OK, see — that’s helpful. That’s easy.”

“Oh, but it isn’t easy! Because you just can’t slavishly imitate how people talk in real life. That won’t work.”

“Then what DOES work?”

“We’ll get into that next time. In the meantime, though, I’m going to give out a homework assignment to the people reading this blog.”

“What?!”

“Settle down. It’s fun. Here you go: I want you to pick out a few lines of dialogue from a story that you like. It has to be ‘naked’ dialogue — it can’t have all kinds of narrative twisting through it, explaining things. I just want dialogue. Post it in the comments section and explain how the word choice, the rhythm, or the flow (or any combination of them) works to bring out character, action, or emotion.”

“Huh. I think I can do that.”

“I think everyone reading this can do it. Get cracking. Help each other by pointing things out. Feel free to comment on each other’s examples, too. Let’s have some fun with it!”