What’s That You Say? [Round Two]

“We’re not here to chat. We’re here to say something, to communicate character and tone of voice and information. We’re here to write good dialogue.”

– Gary Provost

I quote from Mr. Provost often, don’t I? As you might have guessed, I like what he had to say and how he said it. His books and articles make writing very doable, in my opinion, as well as being chock full of humor, so it is likely that I shall continue to quote him. 
In this round, we’re going to be talking about how the characters say what they say. Some writers, particularly those just starting out, seem to be afraid of repeating the same word too often—as well they should be!—but the words “said” or “says” are something of an exception. Following dialogue as they do, they tend to slip by unnoticed, but they play an important role in reminding the reader who is doing the speaking. The danger of repetition comes in attaching them at the end of every string of dialogue. Instead, use them only when there is a chance of the reader being uncertain about who is speaking, in which case the noun or pronoun is the important thing, the he or she or Duffy that directs the flow. In good dialogue, even those become mostly unnecessary.
The Synonym Syndrome is often the product of the writer’s insecurity. They don’t believe that the dialogue completely conveys the attitude or emotion they are trying to express,or it’s not creative enough, so they try to reinforce the image with a bevy of synonyms: he shouted, she chided, he snarled, they announced…
Adverbal Abuse multiplies the condition: he shouted angrily, she chided reprovingly, he snarled nastily, they announced publicly…
When we know the characters and the situation, we can hear the exchange and do not need—indeed, resent!—the author intruding to tell us. It’s distracting and it robs the dialogue of  its impact.
From Mr. Provost again:

Use said or no verb at all most of the time. Rarely use adverbs to describe dialogue, and only when necessary. Remember that 90% of your dialogue should contain its own tone of voice, and not require explaining. Your reader is no dummy. If you have given him a clear sense of who your charter is and what he is experiencing, the reader will hear the tone of voice without your explaining.”

Ah, a clear sense of who your character is and what he is experiencing… This takes us back to characterization, which I previously discussed in “Do Your Characters Have Character?” One of the keys to characterization that I mentioned was to put yourself in his shoes. Before you go scribbling out dialogue, you need to think about what your character is feeling when he speaks. Is he nervous? Afraid? Trying to butter someone up? Angry? What is he trying to accomplish?
More, what does he do to express what he’s feeling? Since dialogue is a form of action, we can give it a boost by showing what the character does, describing physical movements rather than using the word said or assorted adverbs.

“He did what?” Gunn came to his feet, fists on the table and face flushed. 

“He lost it, boss.” Joseph fidgeted with edge of the letter. “The whole thing.” 

Barry jumped in, not wasting any time. “Didn’t I tell ya? I said that scumbag couldn’t be trusted as far as you can toss ‘im.”

The caution here is, again, to avoid repetition. Too much use of action tags can wear the reader out. Some variety is good and helps to add interest as well as moving the story along, but frequently the best choice is no tag at all.

“In life, talk may be cheap. Not so in fiction. Make every word count by viewing a character’s speech as an expansion of his action.”

~James Scott Bell

I’d like to take that just a fraction of a step further: Make every word count by viewing a character’s speech as an opportunity to show what he or she is like. Think about how the character’s dialogue is going to support his personality. While a conversation between characters will often carry unadorned questions and details, it also offers the chance to portray what a person is like. Take, for instance, Barry’s informal use of language and his choice of the word ‘scumbag’  in the above conversation. What sort of picture do those particular words present? How does it make him stand out from the other two?
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Don’t be shy!

Leave a Reply