Writing Snazzy Dialogue, Part Two
1. No talking for talking's sake
2. Don't be afraid of silence
3. Intermittent action
We left off discussing how to use supporting action along with your dialogue. Why should I do that? you may ask. Because including intermittent action with your dialogue can help you avoid a lot of the following:
4. Adverbs and alternatives to “said”
It can get really repetitive reading "said" all the time. And it's not necessarily better to use every alternative to it, either. Commanded, growled, purred, shouted, uttered, announced, exclaimed, cried, replied, disclosed, mumbled, stated...… Really, by trying to come up with a clever synonym for "said" every time you use a dialogue tag, you just end up making your writing appear immature and not very clever. If you write "It's freezing in here." Johnny hugged himself and rubbed his hands over his arms. then we'll know that it was Johnny who said it's freezing. Alternately, you can omit the dialogue tags altogether for a few lines. As long as you begin the conversation with a clear indication of who’s speaking, the format of a new line for each speaker makes it easy to follow along for four or five lines without needing a he said/she said to clarify.
Certainly there are exceptions to even the best rules, including these, as evidenced by a question posed by our good buddy Pete in the forums. He gave a very specific example of using two said alternatives for the reasons of pacing, mood, style, etc., to which I replied in defense of one and not the other:
Muttered conveys an important aspect of the dialogue beyond how the character sounds - it implies that the character is intentionally trying not to be heard, or to cause misunderstanding/confusion, etc. and at the same time it shows us that the character(s) being spoken to may not have understood the words spoken because they were muttered.
Growled doesn't really offer any important insight to the dialogue, does it? In which case, why not just use "said"? It gives us a tone of voice, but isn't that a bit subjective? Like when I raise my voice with my husband and he tells me to stop yelling hahaha. I tell him "Believe me, that's not yelling." How he describes my tone and volume of voice differs from how I, or someone else, might describe it. Is it really necessary to point out that a character's speech sounds like a growl? You might argue that it implies anger or other emotion, but if you've done your job in the rest of the scene (the content of the dialogue, any supporting action you choose to include) and the rest of the book (characterization and the tone/mood in general) what more can you possibly hope to add by using growled? I wouldn't call it lazy writing. In this case, I'd probably call it superfluous.
In other words, use those alternatives very wisely. Also, please try to avoid this:
"Give it to me now," he said angrily.
"But it's mine!" she shouted loudly. "You can't have it!"
Adverbs are never the answer. You're telling the reader everything and showing them nothing. Yeah, that old adage… Now I’m a firm believer that a good story needs a little bit of telling along with showing, so there will be exceptions to this rule as well. There are instances where a nicely placed adverb can be brilliant (see what I did there?), but don't overdo it.
Now that you’ve mastered the art of natural-sounding, meaningful dialogue, you may run into this last issue:
5. Everyone sounds the same!
This is where you focus not on the content of speech, but on the manner of speaking. Chances are, you’ll develop some great, quirky characters whose dialogue will differentiate them from other characters without a lot of help from you (don’t you just love when they do that?) It might be an accent, a stutter, a lisp. It could be a certain catch-phrase they use, or an uncommon bit of slang in their vocabulary. It might even be a gesture accompanying their speech, like shrugging the shoulders, waving of the hands, snapping fingers.
So what if you have a few characters who are very much the same? You’re writing the kind of story where it’s not really practical to have a character who insists on speaking like a pirate, or - more subtly - there’s no logical reason for one character to sound different in any of the obvious ways I just mentioned. You still want their dialogue to sound authentic to their character, so how can you use their manner of speaking to differentiate them from one another? Here’s another example from my own writing. In this excerpt, we see Charlotte in an argument with her best friend, Lora. These two grew up in the same town, are both white females, the same socioeconomic backgrounds, same age. But you can see the differences when they speak to each other:
Lora put a hand on her shoulder. “What’s going on with you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re freaking me out a little bit. I’m sorry if it makes me sound like a jerk, but you weren’t even this…crazy—” she winced when she said it “—right after your mom died. What’s going on now?”
Charlotte shrugged, exaggerating the movement of her shoulders and slumping her chin to her chest.
“I don’t know what I should tell you. What I can tell you.”
“It’s fucking me you’re talking to,” Lora whispered. “That shouldn’t even be a question in your mind.”
But it was. She couldn’t help it.
“I don’t have anything useful to say right now. I just don’t even know what words should be coming out of my mouth. But please don’t leave right now, okay? Please?”
The content of the dialogue isn’t as important as the manner in which the girls speak to each other. You can see Lora’s dominating personality in the way she asks questions plainly, and doesn’t hesitate to potentially insult her friend by calling her crazy. Charlotte, on the other hand, can’t give a simple answer to anything at this point. She talks a lot here, but doesn’t actually answer Lora’s questions. Lora - and the reader - can sense that Charlotte is withholding information, but never learn what it is. Not at this point. It creates an ongoing tension that lasts however long you want or need it to. And it’s much more interesting to see the conversations and relationships develop this way, instead of having Charlotte and Lora say the exact feelings behind the dialogue.
Thanks for sticking with this dialogue maniac through such a long post, and I hope you’ve learned enough to create all the Snazzy Dialogue your manuscript can handle. I’ll be looking for it, and I won’t hesitate to let you know if you’re slacking!
Jennifer writes erotica and mainstream women's fiction. She has had a short story and a poem published in Divine Dirt Quarterly, and an erotic short story in Oysters&Chocolate. She really is a dialogue maniac, and has shared these tips, as well as other observations on writing and the road to publishing, on her blog, Jello World.
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