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April 2017

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Dialogue, Part 2

For whatever use they may be, here are more thoughts on dialogue . . . 

I try to follow this basic rule: Only write the interesting parts. That holds true for dialogue as well. We don't need to report the "Hi, how are you" parts of conversations, the small talk that serves the cause of politeness in real life but drags a story down to crawling pace. If a conversation isn't contributing to the depth or the forward movement of the story, it doesn't belong.

Most people know that characters should sound different from one another, each speaking with a unique voice. But characters also adjust their voices for their various audiences. If we don't sound the same when talking to our bosses, children, and best friends, why should our characters? Their voices will vary further depending on how the relationship in question is going--whether it's growing or dying, where the balance of power lies.

Dialogue tags (e.g., "he said," "she asked") should be used sparingly, just often enough to help the reader keep track of who's speaking. There's a range of opinions on the constant use of "said." Generally, repetitions of "said" are not considered annoying; it's a word that slips by as blandly as white space on the page. While a liberal use of fancy variations on "said" (with characters "proclaiming," "exclaiming," and yes, "ejaculating") is decidely out of fashion now, I like to use different verbs occasionally. I would estimate that I probably use "said" about 80-90% of the time, with "asked" a distant second place. Once in a while, my characters will sigh, shout, or whisper their remarks (although they don't proclaim, utter or declare). Readers (and writers) seem to have individual preferences and pet peeves about these variants, with some believing that we need never use a substitute verb for "say" if we show how the characters feel. (For example, tears streaming down a character's face would be a hint that her next words are sobbed, while an exclamation point and capital letters let us know the character screamed). I'm all for showing rather than telling, but sometimes verbs such as squeal, shriek, hiss, or drawl can work beautifully. 

We must be wary of monologuists.  Sometimes a character's chatterbox tendencies serve a purpose, letting us know that character is nervous or pompous or selfish or something else.  (I have a character in one of my WIPs who rattles on, and I developed that facet of her quite consciously and carefully.)  But usually, people don't jabber on uninterrupted for paragraphs, and our characters can't get away with it too often either.  (Although it worked for Anne of Green Gables and Hamlet!)


Be wary of monologuists. Be very wary.

Great post/tutorial, Jenn!
"Thank you," she said, checking the bushes for monologuists running amok.
Excellent post! :)



Thanks for these blogposts on dialogue. I have a question, though. What about tenses in dialogue?
Can you address that? I would appreciate hearing more about past, present and standards for tense in dialogue.
-writer in process of learning more about using dialogue

Re: dialogue

Thanks for commenting!

Hmm, I will think about tenses and see if I have anything useful to say. You can also pick up a lot by reading books rich in dialogue.

Happy writing!
Excellent posts! I saw the link on Nathan B's blog. Only one thing about said... when you read every line.... said mary, said bob, jill said.... my I get saided out pretty quick. I too prefer action tags in place of dialogue tags but I can get too much said and then it stands out like a drop of blood on a white pillowcase.

Great post!
Thanks! Yes, I think "said" frequency is at least partly a matter of personal preference.
great post, jenn. thank you thank you thank you for underscoring the importance of voice. as an author who writes easily 5 or 6 times as much dialogue as i do straight prose, it makes me a little crazy when characters sound the same all the time.

I love dialogue--reading it and writing it. I respect people who can write description well, but I tend not to have so much of it in my own writing.