The Daily Writes: Day 5



The Barking Dog


One of John Steinbeck’s tips for writers was: If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

I write dialogue more slowly than description, always trying to carefully feel my way around the realness of what’s coming out of my character’s mouths.

Not only does the character have to speak with realism – so that the reader will believe the character is real – and each major character will have to have his or her own speech idiosyncrasies, there also has to be a kind of rhythm to the speech, a stopping and starting, a flow that is as realistic as the words used.

In screenplays and TV scripts you find the word ‘beat’ interspersed through dialogue. This is a pause, maybe before the delivery of a punchline, maybe to indicate the character is taking a pause to think.

An author friend of mine calls the beat in fiction writing: ‘The Barking Dog’. It’s when, in the middle of a conversation, something happens to add a ‘beat’ to the rhythm. It can be a thought running through a character’s head. It can be the sound of a barking dog outside the window. It can be an interruption, or an action. But using ‘The Barking Dog’ is a must in long stretches of dialogue, or there will be no sense of realistic pace to the conversation on the page.

The reason I’m writing about this is because today I wrote approximately 1,000 words of straight dialogue. The child at the centre of my book, Ely, is a very verbal boy. He talks – a lot. But generally, adults who are with talkative children only hear half what they say, because much of what they say is inane. Keeping the reader engaged while Ely talks will be a feat, but I’m using The Barking Dog to help pace it.

In later drafts this 1,000 words might be drastically reduced, but this is another thing about dialogue for me – I have to let it play out to its extreme, without exiting the scene before I’ve let my characters say everything they have to say in the moment. It’s only then that I can get to the crux of what they’re trying to say, realistically.


About Brian Finnegan

My second novel, Knowing Me Knowing You was published in May 2013. It's about a teenage ABBA fan club who reunite 30 years later to travel to Stockholm to an ABBA reunion concert. My first novel, The Forced Redundancy Film Club, was published last year. It's the story of five people who loose their jobs on the same day and set up a club where they watch classic films in each other's houses every month. My full-time day job is as editor of GCN magazine in Ireland.

Posted on April 5, 2014, in Daily Writes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This is so true – however, when I say my dialogue out loud, my cat – who perches behind me when I write, thinks I’m talking to her. So it goes like this “Blah blah blah blah ‘miaow’ blah blah blah ‘miaow’ blah blah blah ‘miaow'”! She throws me off, so I put her out of the room and shut the door. Then I see her paws reaching under the gap of the door, scratching away!

    • Our one-eyed cat, Bart, passed away last summer, and is sorely missed, for reading out dialogue to and much more. (I immortalized him in a novel, so he’ll always be alive in some sense.) Now we have a dog, Scout, who has no patience for being read out to, so I only have the four walls. At least they don’t answer back.

      • Oh I’m sorry to hear that! But I wonder why your dog doesn’t like to be read to? I’d like to read your stuff!

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