“That’s What She Said,” He Said Crossly, Crossing His Arms and Tapping His Foot…..

Posted: 09/15/2010 in Uncategorized Musings
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Dialogue. The primary means of communication for human beings. Even your novel characters must you this to converse with each other. So, it should be easy, right? We all know how to talk, so writing dialogue should be a snap. Welllll…… It’s not quite that simple. Let’s say you did transpose a conversation from real-life, into your story, (adding the proper denotations to signal who is speaking of course) it might look something like this:

John walked up to the coffee machine. Frank was already filling his mug. “Hey Frank,” John said.

“Hey John,” Frank said. “How are you?”

“Doing okay,” John said. “How about you?”

“All right,” Frank said. “The kid broke his arm trying to climb our old tree.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” John said.

“Yeah,” Frank said. “Kids sometimes do the stupidest things.”

“Yeah, but ya gotta love em,” John said.

I don’t know about you, but I’m on the edge of my seat. (insert sarcasm) Okay, I’m being very extreme with this example, but you get the idea. Turns out, a lot of the conversations we have with other people can be downright boring. Not to worry though, we can spice, slice and dice up character dialogue so your readers hang on each word spok–er–written.

First step, get rid of those darn saids. ‘Said’ is an empty word. All it does is denote who is talking, and often is unnecessary. An alternate route would be to use said-isms: “He shouted. He sighed. He growled. He whispered” The problem is, if overused, it can become worse than just using ‘said’. Since ‘said’ is an empty word, it often fades into the background, becoming invisible to most readers. But it’s still there, taking up space.

Of course, an even better alternative is to use action to denote who is talking: “What’d you do that for?” Frank ran to the base of the tree.

Another alternative, similar to the action tags, would be no speech tags whatsoever. This only works in some instances, usually when only two people are talking and it’s obvious who said what:

“Hey Frank, how are you?” John asked.

“Good, how about you?”

“Doing okay, how about those Red Socks?”

It basically comes down to using everything in moderation. A couple said-isms here, some action tags there, no tags over there, maybe an occasional adjective here for good measure. And of course we need something interesting to talk about as well. Let’s try it:

John walked up to the coffee machine where Frank was already filling his mug. “Hey Frank,” John greeted his friend.

“Hey John.” Frank plunked the coffee pot down. “How are you?”

“Doing great. How about you?”

Frank sighed. “All right. Jimmy broke his arm trying to climb our old tree.”

“Oh, that’s not good. Is he okay? Are you okay?” John put his arm on Frank’s shoulder. Frank was having money trouble and the last thing he needed was a big medical bill. Not to mention what the poor kid was going through.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Frank shook his head despite his positive answer. “Kids. Sometimes I wonder where their brain is at.”

“Yeah, but ya gotta love em.” John said reassuringly.

See what we did? Took out nearly all the saids, replaced them with some said-isms, threw in some action tags or just left the speech tag empty. Plus we needed to give them something interesting to talk about, so I increased the conflict about the boy breaking his arm and how it was affecting the father. Pretty neat, huh?

This is a very basic example of what you can do to improve your dialog. For more inspiration, try reading some of your favorite authors and see how they write dialog. Find one that suits your style and implement it in your story. Your readers will swear they’re listening to a real conversation.

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