Tag! He (or she) is it! How to write a novel–part 22

Blah - Speech Bubble BackgroundAs mentioned before, good dialog isn’t real, it just sounds that way. But for reasons that will probably remain a mystery forever, many still learning the craft of writing insist on loading up their dialog with crap, by which I mean adverbs, adjectives, unneeded identifiers, and an endless array of substitutes for the word “said.”

Let’s get the modifier thing out of the way first, ’cause it’s the worst of the offenses. The only time you need to use an adverb or an adjective in dialog (and pretty much everything else you write) is when you’ve exhausted every possibility for finding an action verb to do the job. Then, it’s probably okay. But as my Mom used to say, “Don’t make it a habit.”

Modifiers tell readers how something is said or done; action verbs show them. It’s that simple. Mary whispered something is way better than Mary said something softly. They get the same idea across, but one paints a picture; the other doesn’t. You want readers to *see* your dialog as if it were being acted out in front of them. Modifiers replace actors with stage directions. Who wants that?

Wur unwantedWuz unwantedSo, what’s an action verb? For me it’s pretty much any verb other than “was,” and “were.” The other forms of “to be” are suspect, but the real offenders are these two. Avoid them when and if you can.

Next, trust your readers to know who’s saying what to whom. If there’s any doubt, then stick in a speech tag. Something like “Joe said” works well. Try to avoid sticking Joe’s name inside a quote, because it’s just lame, and almost nobody talks that way. F’rinstance, the following is bad form; don’t do it:

“You’re kidding, Rupert! I didn’t know that. And get this, Rupert, that liver transplant I had? Well, Rupert ol’ pal, it turns out I didn’t need it after all. You may not believe this, Rupert, but someone just unplugged my brain. Who knew?”

This is even worse:

“You’re kidding,” Joe said to Rupert, blissfully. “And that liver transplant I had?” Joe laughed hysterically. “It turns out I didn’t need it after all.” Joe scratched his head vigorously. “You may not believe it, but someone just unplugged my brain,” Joe said. “Who knew?”

Even if you nuke the three modifiers (blissfully, hysterically, and vigorously) the line still sucks. I’d go with something like:

“You’re kidding,” Joe said. “By the way, you remember that emergency liver transplant I had? Huge mistake. I should’ve gone to a real doctor.”

MoronThe idea of dialog has been around forever. It was old news when the Greeks pumped it into their plays. Socrates employed dialogs to persuade the ancients to see things his way. But the main idea behind dialog is two-way conversation. Yes, you can have a dialog involving more than two speakers, but in most cases, you’ll only have two. If only one character talks, it’s a monologue. Tune into any late night TV show with a host, and you’ll get an example. But, since you’re unlikely to get a job writing monologues for a network comic, let’s focus on character dialog, and let’s practice by using two voices.

There are a host of ways to differentiate those voices. Dialect is a good one, provided it isn’t overdone. Toss in an odd pronunciation, a bit of slang, maybe a foreign word or two, and you’ll lock in the identification without a speech tag or an action tag. [Note: we’re talking seasoning here, not poisoning. Keep it light; all you want is flavor.]

“Yo, Tex! Whut’re you doin’ here in the hood?”
“Had to buy me a new shootin’ iron, podnuh.”

Watch out for pronouns, especially if the speakers are of the same sex. Use both action tags and speech tags, but only when necessary.

“It’s getting late,” Missy said.
Suzie checked her watch and sighed. “You’re right.”
“Of course I am,” she said. “What else is new?”

Break long passages into smaller ones. Use incomplete sentences now and then. Er, uh, and uhm are perfectly natural, as are lines truncated by the response of the other party.

“I was dating Mary back then, and–“
Mary? The one everyone called ‘The Nun?’ That Mary?”
Joe blinked. “The Nun? Who called her that?”
“Well, uhm– It’s, uh– Actually, everyone did.”

If you’re more concerned with the content of the dialog then the format, focus on that first, then go back and make it entertaining.

Hm. It appears I’ve got more ground to cover with this dialog thing. Look for more next time.


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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3 Responses to Tag! He (or she) is it! How to write a novel–part 22

  1. nativeson49 says:

    Although I think it almost too bare bones, Cormac McCarthy’s style of dialogue might be a good study for those interested in understanding how to record the essence of conversation. Along with a lack of quotation marks, Cormac’s work definitely avoids the frills of adjectives and adverbs while getting his message across.

  2. joshlangston says:

    You’re probably on to something. I haven’t read enough Cormac McCarthy to render a meaningful opinion. I suspect, however, that I’m old school enough that I would miss the full panoply of punctuation with which I’m familiar. I’m not sure if that make McCarthy “New Age” or me “Old Age.”

    • nativeson49 says:

      I’m fairly certain that C. McCarthy is older than both you and I. Regardless, I found his absence of ‘traditional’ punctuation both interesting and uncomfortable, sorta like fiberglass underwear. Still, his spare dialogue sorta forced the reader to pay attention which I like.

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