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!”

 

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