Good dialogue can do many things

I’m reading Norman Mailer‘s Tough Guys Don’t Dance. About 25% of the way in, and I’m finding it a very slow read. My go-to book has always been a thriller, a mystery, a detective story. Action, something needing resolution. And dialogue.

Credit: Mary Richmond
Credit: Mary Richmond

Mailer’s novel is light on dialogue. Pages and pages of first-person POV. The protagonist drives to a patch of earth on Cape Cod, on a bleak November day. “I liked the dull green of the dune grass and the pale gold of the weeds, and in that late autumn panorama when the beef’s blood and burnt orange are out of the leaves, the colors came down to gray and green and brown, but with what a play between! My eye used to find a dance of hues…”

Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard

Contrast that with Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for good writing. Rule #9: Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Leonard relied on the strength of dialogue to carry his stories.  To paraphrase: Dialogue is showing. It’s not telling. Readers are in a scene and this is one reason it can be so effective and engaging. Good dialogue can do many things. Move a story forward. Reveal character.

Both men are renowned writers. I lean towards the lean.



Writing in descriptive detail

I learned from Natalie Goldberg the importance of writing in descriptive detail: “Be specific. Get in the habit of using nouns, verbs, colors, textures. If you realize you’ve written a sentence that’s full of general vague language, don’t scratch it out but make the next sentence more specific.”

The man drove up to the bar not in a pickup truck. In a black Ford F-150 pickup truck. With a dented rear tailgate. The teen did not make a sandwich. He layered sliced ham and cheddar cheese between two slices of rye bread. Slathered it with brown mustard.

The same level of detail does not always hold true for your characters. Note Elmore Leonard’s rule #8 in his 10 rules for writers. “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”

Leave some to your readers’ imaginations. She was tall, with short dark hair. No mention of the jeans and jacket she wore. The reader will know from the story that she is an easy-going person, a casual dresser. No mention of her eye color, her makeup, her specific age.

To close, a great bit of advice from Goldberg: “Only the continual act of showing up for writing built my belief in myself.”

Writing Lean

Recently YA author Maggie Stiefvater (@mstiefvater) tweeted: Every time you skim a novel, a kitten dies in a paragraph you skipped over. Do you want kittens to die? No. No one does. READ ALL THE WORDS.

author maggie stiefvater
YA Author Maggie Stiefvater


I confess I let some kittens die (figuratively) last month. A couple of novels I read had what I considered to be too much exposition.

Skimming became a knee-jerk reaction. I’m not a skimmer, but there are moments when it’s a matter of skim or drop the book.

For an author to avoid filler, Elmore Leonard suggests, in his Ten Rules of Writing: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Good advice.

elmore leonard
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Screenwriters Adriane Coros and Jim Landis recommend: “Writing lean pushes you to really understand exactly what you are trying to say in each and every scene, each and every line, and to know your characters thoroughly.”

writing lean
Writing lean


A comment made by playwright Raegan Payne may help you pare your story down to a leaner core. In talking about the art of writing for the stage, Payne says: “I like being forced to tell a story with just dialogue and almost no resources. It’s a poor man’s art form.”


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To adapt a phrase: keep on keepin’ lean.