Let’s Talk Again!

A few days ago we were talking about writing dialogue and, being the Chatty Cathy that I am, I have more to say. :) But first, a quick recap:

• To improve your dialogue, study scriptwriting. Or read novelists known for great dialogue.

• Even watching dialogue-driven movies over television will help; remind yourself that every word was written—composed—for that purpose.

• If you’re struggling with a scene, read your dialogue out loud. Get help from friends to do this.

• Watch out for exposition masquerading as dialogue: don’t use dialogue as an info dump.

• Beware of excessive name-calling and endearment use.

• Make every word count; unless it’s vital, skip the greetings.

• Don’t tell us you’re changing the subject; just do it.

• People interrupt each other, fail to finish sentences, and use contractions. So should your dialogue.

• Keep the conversation snappy; don’t get bogged down in long monologues.

• Friends don’t let friends begin sentences with “Well” or “So.” Stop it.

• Each character should have a distinct voice.

• Consider the use of slang to help with characterization.

• Use dialect sparingly; a little goes a long way.

Got all that?

Now let’s talk about dialogue tags. You know: he said, she said … he quipped, she retorted … dialogue tags. Editors watch carefully for tags because less experienced authors tend to want to try to enhance the drama of the moment by saying a character screamed words or murmured them. But don’t do it, kids. There’s a couple reasons for this.

First, “said substitutes” can get so outlandish that they distract from the dialogue and pull your reader out of the story—suddenly the reader’s aware that he’s, well, reading, instead of being lost in the tale. When you stick with said, the reader’s eye moves right over it and doesn’t really notice. Second, it’s always better to let your dialogue convey to the reader the moment’s drama. If the dialogue is not strong enough to do that, rewrite the dialogue instead of using said substitutes to bolster it.

Furthermore, do not modify the tag with an adverb (“she said morosely” or “he commented appreciatively”). In the past this was an accepted practice, but nowadays agents and acquisitions editors view repeated use of adverbial modifiers as one of the first signs of an amateur writer, and you don’t want that. So drop the adverbs. Instead, allow readers to fill in these emotions as they read by giving them body language, pauses, and so forth. (Oh, and great, revealing dialogue!)

There’s no rule that you must use a tag at all. If it’s clear who is speaking by the dialogue itself, skip it. If you must use a tag, just use said.

One last thought. It follows, also, that dialogue should advance the plot. It needs to be meaningful—not only to us, but to the characters themselves. (Again: no exposition masquerading as dialogue!) Watch carefully for conversations that have no meaning to the story. Cut! Cut! Cut!

Tweet: Writing good dialogue, part 2: let’s talk about dialogue tags!

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  1. Michelle Ule says:

    I had a project rejected the other day because it contained too much dialogue. I, personally, love dialogue and would rather read it than long dreary narrative.

    Maybe I should have been a screen writer?


  2. BB says:

    Hey – that’s a great tip about exposition in dialog disguise! Give an example! (Also, who do you think writes dialog well?)

    • Jamie says:

      Check out the previous blog (“Let’s Talk!” http://www.jamiechavez.com/blog/permalink/2011/08/let’s-talk/)…I actually answer both those questions there. To wit: good writers of dialogue are Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Quentin Tarrantino. Exposition masquerading as dialogue is when characters tell each other things THEY already know, just so readers will know it too. (“Remember last year when we drove to San Antonio and had that big wreck? Boy, I thought you’d never walk again!”) :)

  3. […] Blurt out You remember my post on dialogue tags, right? I’m already not crazy about blurt for that reason, but when you write he blurted out, I […]

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  1. By » Words I Never Want to Read WriteThinker.com on 2 November, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    […] Blurt out You remember my post on dialogue tags, right? I’m already not crazy about blurt for that reason, but when you write he blurted out, I […]