Monday, August 29, 2005

Tips for Writers Monday: Dialogue

You know those lists that occasionally circulate that give you about 6,000 synonyms for the word "said?" You know, words like, shouted, whispered, thundered, whined, etc? Well, gather all those lists together, walk to your paper shredder and toss 'em in. Then delete all those lists off your computer. You are never allowed to reference them again. Why? Because that's lazy writing.

Dialogue tags should be used only in the most dire of circumstances, when nothing else will do. They are weak, they are "telling" and any besides "said" can border on purple prose.

Ah, you ask, but how will the reader tell who is talking if I don't have tags? And how will they tell the speaker's attitude? Stephanie, you are such a dork.

Well, maybe I'm a dork, but I do have answers for your questions...

Use action instead of tags. Action will identify the speaker, and they will convey tone far better than a synonym for "said."

Using dialogue tags:
"Where have you been?" Jack thundered.
"None of your business," Missy yelped.

Using action tags:
Jack slammed the door open so hard it bounced off the wall, leaving a deep imprint in the paint. "Where have you been?"
Missy shoved the box behind her back and spun to face him. "None of your business."

See the difference? Dialogue tags in the first example show that Jack is shouting and Missy is yelping, but we don't know why. Is Missy scared or startled or injured or what? In the second example, there are no dialogue tags in the second example, but you know who is talking and you still get the message that Jack is fired up and Missy has issues. but you get far more information about Jack and Missy's emotions than you do in the first example.

In the second example, you also get the additional excitement of action. Action is always more interesting that static dialogue, plus it increases tension: Jack is so angry/upset/worried that he's slamming things around. Is he going to get violent with Missy? Do we need to worry about her? Is he going to break something? And what is Missy hiding? And why is she hiding it from Jack? All of a sudden, you have lots more questions and tension.

Go thru a dialogue scene in your manuscript and get rid of all dialogue tags. Every. Single. One. Then go back and add action tags, or eliminate some tags altogether to facilitate rapid-fire exchanges (as long as it's clear who is talking). See what you think of the difference.


At 9:26 AM, Anonymous Esri/Kiki said...

Oh, fine. Another thing I have to watch for! Actually, I'm pretty sure I keep that particular vice to a minimum.

Good entry, Steph.


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