Sunday, November 1, 2009

Teen Inklings E-Zine: Volume 4: DIALOGUE

Dialogue is a very important part of writing. It’s always action, and action is what drives a story. Dialogue is a great way to add personality to your characters. It can be fun, quick, quirky, or even tense and serious. It can also be misused. Tons of writers make mistakes inside—and outside—of their quotation marks, but you can avoid that easily.

Said Tags
We’ve already discussed this at length in Volume 2, but there are a few more things you need to know.

Never, never tell inside of a said tag.
“I love pie!” Katie gushed.
Gushed needs to be changed to “said.” Resist the urge to tell your readers how to interpret things. They like to interpret things for themselves. Same goes for ly words, which are incorrect modifiers placed after the said tag.
“I love pie!” Katie said ecstatically.
The ly word could be cut and the meaning wouldn’t change. Less is more.

If you are writing a long paragraph, get your speaker attributions (said tags) into your dialogue ASAP.

“I find you irresistible. And now I know that you’re the love of my life. I don’t care if you’re a mortal and I’m… not. That doesn’t matter… So what if I want to suck your blood? That’s a small quirk to overcome in the face of true love. I’ll keep you safe and love you until the end of time. No matter what,” Edwardo said.

That’s too late.

“I find you irresistible. And now I know that you’re the love of my life. I don’t care if you’re a mortal and I’m… not. That doesn’t matter,” Edwardo said. “So what if I want to suck your blood? That’s a small quirk to overcome in the face of true love. I’ll keep you safe and love you until the end of time. No matter what.”

Still too late.

“I find you irresistible,” Edwardo said. “And now I know that you’re the love of my life. I don’t care if you’re a mortal and I’m… not. That doesn’t matter… So what if I want to suck your blood? That’s a small quirk to overcome in the face of true love. I’ll keep you safe and love you until the end of time. No matter what.”

Juuuust right. And keep in mind that you only ever need to use a said tag—or an action tag—once in any bit of dialogue.

Resist the urge to use a said tag after every bit of dialogue. That’s just plain annoying. If you were to take away every said tag in a book—which nobody should do—the reader ought to be able to tell who’s saying what and where. More on this later.

Bonus Tip!
Something I used to do when I started writing was invert my said tags.
You’d write: “Pizza!” he said, not, “Pizza!” said he.
Always do the same with names.
“Pizza!” Mark said, is the correct form of, “Pizza!” said Mark.
Lots of authors get this wrong. You shouldn’t.

Show Vs. Tell… Dialogue Edition.

Dialogue can be a great place to convey facts. I mean, who hasn’t seen those CSI type scenes where agent X arrives on the scene and has the whole crime explained to him in detail by agent Z? In writing, tread this ground carefully. Either you’ll get through the field safely or you’ll step on a mine. Most of the time that mine is backstory. Backstory is a very “telling” way of conveying information. Example:

Mark walked up to Jeremy. “Hey, bud! How are you doing?”
“Not so good. Remember when I broke my arm last year?”
“Yup. You fell off your skateboard. Wasn’t that during a competition?”
“Sure was. My arm’s still sore from that fall.”
Mark stared at the lazy clouds drifting above the trees. “You remember when we first met?”
“Uh, no. Could you remind me?”
“Yup. It was in the middle school hallway next to my locker. You remember Bart? The football player who lives with his grandma? Anyway, he was picking on me and you came to my rescue.”
“That’s right!” A grin spread across Jeremy’s face. “We’ve been best friends ever since.”

Ach! Nearly every sentence in that example had something to “tell.” There are much better ways to “show” that Jeremy is a skateboarder, Bart is a bully, and Mark is Jeremy’s best friend. Reading that I feel like I’m floating outside of the characters, listening to their oh so stilted dialogue.

Ways writers use to tell in dialogue: protagonist conveniently overhears key information; characters suddenly forget certain events in their lives; protagonist asks a character to “jog his memory” about something; characters suddenly become narrators and so on and so forth… Please don’t do those things.

This isn’t real life, people!

When you write dialogue, don’t do it realistically. That’s boring. The written word and the spoken word are two very different things. Consider this example:
“Hey, uh, do you know where my keys are? I mean, I’m always… You remember when we were on that carousel? Yeah, that one with the… Man, I’m not feeling so good.”

When a writer tries to make his dialogue “realistic” the outcome is extremely fragmented, convoluted sentences that hop from one line of thought to the next like a bullfrog with ADD. Here’s how that example should look after revision:

“Do you know where my keys are? Man, I’m not feeling so good.”

The difference is clear.

Politely Echo Me, Please

Don’t let your characters become so formal that they start echoing each other. Broken records are boring, and dialogue is all about action. Example:

“Good morning, Dave,” Julia said.
“Yes it is a good morning, isn’t it?”
Julia nodded. “Oh it sure is. How’s your wife?”
“My wife? Oh, she’s fine.”
“Fine? Well that’s good.”
“Thank you for asking.” Jack took a sip of his coffee.
“You’re certainly welcome.”

Boring! Julia and Dave are way too polite. Nothing is being alluded to. Everything is being repeated. The dialogue is stilted. Stilted equals boring. Let the reader figure things out for themselves. If you deprive them of that right, they’re justified in chucking your book at the nearest wall.

Word to Word or Subtext to Subtext?

In the real world, so much is conveyed by body language. In dialogue, so much is conveyed by the subtext of our words. When we talk, it’s from meaning to meaning. Sometimes words are poor conveyors of meaning.

“When’s the last time you checked your wallet?”
“Are you calling my girlfriend a thief?”
“Well, if the shoe fits…”

When your characters allude to things, it creates tension. Let that tension create conflict and, voila! You’ve got action.

Let Dialogue Give Your Characters Personality

The words you choose and the order you put them in can add a great deal of personality to your characters. Giving your character a special word or sentence structure that is totally unique to them can make them memorable. Take these bits of famous dialogue for example:

“My precious.”
“Mmm, the force is strong with this one, it is.”

Each of those immediately conjures up an image in my mind. That’s the effect giving certain words or ways of talking to your characters can have on a reader. Even punctuation can give your characters personality. You can make a person rude by having them constantly cutting people off by using em dashes. Or you can give somebody a stutter by using hyphens. Maybe one of your characters omits certain letters in words? You can convey that by using apostrophes—though I suggest you use this trick rarely.

Some writers, like J.K. Rowling, attempt to give their characters personality by misspelling words. They think this gives their character an accent, when really it just makes readers stumble over the paragraphs. If you want your character to have an accent, convey that by your word choice. Jill Williamson did this by giving a group of people in her book, the Barthians, the tendency to end lots of words with ing. That created a very cool, alien way for those people to talk that I’ve never once stumbled over.

The last piece of advice I’ve got to tell you is to read your dialogue out loud. There are things that your eyes won’t catch. It’s the job of your voice to point them out. If something sounds awkward or stilted, change it. Better yet, pull your family members together and give them your dialogue to read out loud. Record it and listen to it later, then make your revisions.

Check back next month for December’s E-Zine: Setting


  1. Thank you! I have a lot of trouble with dialogue, so that was really helpful! :D

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Whew, I have to admit some of my dialogue sounded like that. Thanks for the post!

  4. Hmmm some good points, but I would have to disagree with you in a few places. For example: in point 'A', you stated that you should change 'gushed' to 'said'. I really don't understand why. Using 'gushed' is much more exciting, and it gives your reader a better idea of how your character(s) are feeling, or such.
    I'm sorry if I offended you, I am trying not to, but this is just how I feel.

  5. No, Emily, you didn't offend me. Everyone is free to their own opinion. =)
    But just to clear things up for you... A writer shouldn't want their said-tags to be exciting. A said-tag is supposed to be invisible. It's supposed to tell the reader who's talking so that the action can move on. A fancy said-tag can pull some readers out of the flow. Also, instead of giving a character personality, a said-tag like that tells the reader how to interpret things. And you should try to avoid that. Another thing a said-tag like that does is make writing look immature to an editor/agent. And, sometimes, they create physical impossibilities. You don't 'smile' words or 'breathe' them. You say them. There are a few exceptions to this rule, and lots of established writers break them. My point is that we are all young writers--we get one chance to impress. If an editor/agent finds any reason to dump our manuscripts in the slush pile, they will.
    As I said before, you're free to your own opinion. I'm totally not offended by yours! But I am sorry if I stepped on your toes. I hope you understand my point.
    Thanks a million for the comment!

  6. Thanks for responding to my comment! I guess I don't totally understand about the whole editor thing, because I don't write for them, so I can see where one doesn't what to sound overdone when writing.

    P.S. I knwo this is totally off the point, but I noticed you like 'The Hobbit'. Are you aware that they are making a movie about it? You can check it out here:

  7. No problem, Emily! And if you're only writing for yourself, I don't see any problem in doing whatever you like.

    I did hear that about the Hobbit! I'm interested in finding out who is chosen to play Bilbo. Did you know they're making two films? I like off-topicness, especially when it involves people with hairy feet. ;)

    Thanks to everyone for the awesome comments! You guys are a real encouragement. =)

  8. Are you also known as Chris Kolmorgen?

  9. LOL, yes, Ivorydancer. Christian Miles is my pen name. =D

  10. Okay... Just wondering... I was a little confused :)

  11. Very helpful advice! I've had trouble with stiff sounding dialogue for a very long time.

  12. Great advice! Wow! But I'm not sure if I agree with part of the "said tags" thing. I think it's fine when authors use descriptive "said" words. What's wrong with it?