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.