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