What’s That You Say?

I haven’t focused on the subject of dialog for a while, so I’ve decided to come back and revisit it because, well, it’s just a good subject for writers.  I have an entire blog dedicated to this topic already, but updating what I said previously seemed like a good idea.

Let’s say that you are at a restaurant, sitting in a booth with a friend.  Across the aisle from you is a couple who are clearly engaged in a heated argument.  For many writers, this is a terrible conundrum.  On the one hand, you want to have a nice conversation with your friend who’s sitting across from you and smiling.  On the other hand, the elevated voices and dynamic body language of the other table are almost irresistible.  Good writers are always on the lookout for new expressions or interactions, so that animated discussion across the way is soooo tempting.

Eventually, you find yourself only half listening to your friend, and tilting your head in the general direction of the argument.  Later, when you get home to your computer (after apologizing repeatedly to your friend) you record the conversation because it might be useful at some future point. A first-draft version might look something like this:

     “You spent how much on that antique baby rattle?” she fumed at him.

     “But it’s a collectible.  I mean, really, it’s unique and really valuable.  It’s like an investment.  We can add it to our collection,” he cried emphatically.

     “That collection is doing nothing but taking up space in our basement, collecting dust and spiders.  I work my brains out so that we can make our house payment and all you can do is buy more worthless stuff to put in your antique collection. It’s not an investment, it’s our groceries for next week.  Is there a special sauce that goes well with tarnished silver?”

     “You just don’t understand. You are so short-sighted,” he mocked her.

Already we can see that there are several things needing to be addressed.  First are the tag lines.  The important thing here is to remember that simpler is better.  The purpose of the tag line is helping the reader keep track of who is speaking.  When there are only two people, that’s easy. Therefore, when two characters are speaking, not every line of dialog will require a tag.

The tags themselves are problematic as well.  The simpler is better concept still applies.  The words said, asked, answered, or replied are the best options for tag lines because the reader will use them as a marker only.  In other words, the reader pretty much skips over these words unless he or she is checking to be certain he or she knows who is speaking.  Words like fumed, mocked, yelled, shrieked, demanded, cajoled, etc. are an attempt by the writer to force an emotional response on the reader.  Resist the urge to force feed your readers and they will thank you profusely.

Another problem with the dialog is that, at one point anyway, the speaker is lecturing.  Now, it may really have happened that way, but it’s pretty boring to read.  Dialog is much more interesting and effective with body language sprinkled in.  After all, that’s what really happens.  There is a huge difference in meaning if I look at my children, arms spread wide, and say “Come over here,” versus if I say that with my arms folded across my chest.  Meta communication is equally, and sometimes even more important that the words which are spoken.

So let’s look at this dialog again, taking into consideration the previous two issues – tag lines and long passages with no body language.

     “You spent how much on that antique baby rattle?” She propped her elbows on the table and rested her head in her hands.

     “But it’s a collectible.  I mean, really, it’s unique and really valuable.  It’s like an investment.” He leaned forward, took a sip of his water, then set the glass down hard on the table. ” We can add it to our collection,” he said. His eyes were wide with excitement.

     “That collection is doing nothing but taking up space in our basement, collecting dust and spiders,” she said, not looking up.  “I work my brains out so that we can make our house payment and all you can do is buy more worthless stuff to put in your antique collection. It’s not an investment.” She looked him in the eyes.  “It’s our groceries for next week.  Is there a special sauce that goes well with tarnished silver?” Her gaze returned to the plate of untouched food in front of her.

     “You just don’t understand. You are so short-sighted.” He balled up his napkin from his lap and tossed it on his plate.

Certainly, this isn’t the only way to rewrite this particular piece.  In fact, there are dozens of options for rewriting this bit.  The idea is that instead of the tag lines conveying the emotion, or the lecturing bit of speech in the middle, this piece now has meta communication, and the dialog flows more naturally than in the first draft.

A great way to check for how dialog sounds is to have someone else read it aloud to you.  If it doesn’t sound like a conversation, then it won’t read like one either.  As with all other aspects of writing, it’s a matter of practice and focus.  Keep focusing and keep practicing, and soon your characters will sound as alive to your readers as they do to you.

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3 thoughts on “What’s That You Say?

  1. Well written and excellent advice. I personally like just simple too. Simple as in Cormac McCarthy’s writing style of capitals and periods. Anything else distracts the reader as you say about your views of distractions. In dialogue you can leave out the ” ” and the , she said because if a writer cannot write clear enough to not confuse the reader about what is being said and who is saying it then the dialogue is not worth writing. Is it not what writing is all about anyway? Being understood and giving the reader enough space between the words to think for themselves. I don’t know. Seems to me to be pretty simple. Anyway this is an excellent blog and I highly recommend it to writers. We’re all in this together and we got to stick together.
    Kindest, Michael

  2. the mutt says:

    Hi,
    Nice advice. We’ve read it many times, but never hurts to hear/read it again.
    On my edits, I’ve found it always reads better without essential tags. Simple, he said, she said, always works. Always.
    Cheers,

  3. Kim Justesen says:

    Thanks to you both. I once heard E. L. Konigsburg speak about the Zen concept of yohaku – which is that space which is left untouched. If you think in terms of a Zen garden, where sand is raked and rocks are arranged to create a serene image, there is always a space that is untouched. This “plain” area contributes equally to the setting. Yohaku in writing is that which isn’t said because it contributes as much as what is.

    Thanks for your support!

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