Monday, April 15, 2013

Dialogue Part 1


Or: "How y'all doing today?" she smiled sweetly.

Comments: "Pace is slow in dialogues." Or "Try showing instead of telling in dialogues."

What they might mean: Your dialogue attributions are dragging a scene's pace or sapping a scene's tension.

Dialogue attribution is how you let the reader know who is speaking which line.
For example: "Kill the traitor," said Jub.
The bolded part is the dialogue attribution.

You might have run across this bit of writerly advice: (Always) use "said" instead of alternatives like: shouted, whispered, grunted, hissed, hinted, questioned, replied, asked, etc.

The most common reason for this advice is that "said" is so prevalent and commonly used, it's virtually invisible. It's like a subliminal link between what is said and who says it.

When an alternative is used, it takes a bit of extra brain power to process how something is said.
Frex: "Kill the traitor," shouted Jub.
Instead, try using punctuation: "Kill the traitor!" said Jub.

Now, if you've run across that "said vs alternative words" tip, you might also have found the "said + adverb warning."

That looks like "(Always) use said without an adverb in dialogue attributions."
Frex: "Save my horse," said Mell beseechingly.
Or worse: "Save my horse," Mell shouted beseechingly (excitedly, worriedly, etc).

Why is this such a sin?

Apart from the added words (which can drag the pace) what's happening is a bit of telling instead of showing.

Let's put our serious pants on.
Some months ago, I blogged about show versus tell and put forth some reasons why one or the other would better serve a story in particular scenes. In dialogue, you might think you're showing conflict in the scene, but when you use too many adverbs, you're telling the reader things.

Let's revisit -ly and its role in show vs tell:
When you come across an -ly word in your dialogue attributes, can you ask "How do you know?"

Example: "I hate you," Doug said angrily.
How do you know he said it angrily?
Because he punched the wall, or scowled, or did any number of things to show his anger.

The fact that you can ask the "How do you know?" prompt and get a "Because" response reveals that you can still change that sentence into a showing piece. But putting the show after Doug's actual statement is still a bit of tell.


Because you're telling the reader second-hand in formation.

What the character says is simply what the character says. When you add a description after the fact, you're offering an interpretation relayed and filtered by the narrator. By the fact that such a description exists, you're also framing the character's words in a way that it should be interpreted. Useful, yes. But not always necessary or beneficial.

A real world example of how annoying this added telling can be is to think of the "said alternatives" or "said + word with -ly" as having a backseat driver.

Most people who drive can do it adequately. But a backseat driver, for reasons known only to them, has a compulsion to comment on everything.

"In half a mile, you're going to turn right," said Kim, the leprechaun.
"Got it," said Bob, the unicorn.
"You sure?"
"You're shifting too hard. And you're too close to that car."
"No I'm not," said Bob.
"You're going too fast."
"I'm going the speed limit."
"This street's a speed trap," said Kim. "You're gonna get a ticket. And you should signal when you're going to merge."
"There was no one in this lane," said Bob.
"Slow down, we're coming to an intersection."
"I know. Light's still green."
"Stale green. Gonna turn yellow," said Kim. "Get ready to stop."
"We'll make it."
"Speed up then."
"You just told me to slow down!" 

Having dialogue attributions other than said, or modified by an adverb, is much like telling the reader things they might have already gleaned from the situation in the scene or from the character's statement. It can get annoying, and it can feel like you don't trust the reader to figure it out on their own. 

But! if you feel that adding an adverb is necessary, it can be an indication that what has been written in the dialogue isn't as clear as it could be.

In your WIP:
Try putting the essence of the -ly word into the character's statement, not after it.

Here's our example again:
"I hate you," Doug said angrily.
Try changing it with punctuation: "I hate you!" said Doug.
I think we can do better. If we're writing a fantasy piece, maybe we can give Doug some voice: "I loathe you!" said Doug.
Or how about putting that angry hate in subtext in a contemporary piece: "I see you again, I'll mess you up so bad they gotta pick you up with a wetvac," said Doug.

Sometimes, using a word other than "said" can help add meaning to what the character actually says:
"I hate you," Doug whispered. If this is he only time I see a word other than "said" in the whole damn scene, I'm going to see its significance, wonder why he's suddenly whispering, maybe even have my mind blown at what's being implied.

But remember: "Said" is a verb. Make sure what you're replacing it with is a verb which can be used logically with spoken communication. In other words, can you whisper, shout, yell, hint, spit, growl, hiss, laugh, smile, or frown a statement?

When in doubt, try it out. 
"I hate you," he frowned.
"I love you," she smiled. 
"You simpering slut," she hissed.
"Run, cowards!" he roared.
"I know all the cool kids," she simpered.
"That pie was delicious!" he said.
 Which worked?

Happy writing and revising! 

Coming Up!
More Dialogue
Robert Bevan 
Nat Russo

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