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.


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.


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.)


  1. Ahnai Deveraux says:

    Im really glad you explqined this because sometimes i read stories and they have so many additions to the dialogue and i feel like i dont add enough so its helpful to know that theyre not very neccesary.

  2. Judy Sattler says:

    “Thanks, Barry.”

    “Is that a real thanks or are you being sarcastic? I can’t tell without the tag.”

    “I mean, thank-you for all the time you took writing these five blog posts on dialogue–I learn best by being shown rather than being told. I’ve bookmarked them all to read again and again until I’ve internalized this stuff.”

    “Now, that sounds like a real thanks.”

    “It is. I’m gonna read your million bad words post too. Looking forward to it. Really.”

  3. Hello! One of the simultaneously best and worst pieces of advice about writing dialogue is to listen to how the people around you speak. It s great advice because you can t hope to capture how people talk if you don t, you know, listen to them. It s terrible advice because when people speak their conversations are full of ums and ahs and repetitions and trailing offs and non-sequitors and missing words and those should be used only sparingly in writing.

Leave a Comment