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!



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!


  1. […] A look at how dialogue can evoke tone, and when to tell not talk: http://barrylyga.com/new/wa-dialogue-4.html […]

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