Out of My Head 9: Dialogue

The single greatest way to reveal character is through dialogue, both spoken and unspoken.

Speech Tag – a way to indicate who spoke (he said, she asked, etc.).

Saidism – an overabundance of speech tags. Steer clear of verbs other than “said” or “ask” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer not being invisible. Be straightforward and simple. A word like said is far less intrusive than grumbled, whimpered, gasped, exclaimed, cautioned, growled, or lied. This is telling, not showing.

Avoid adverbs to modify the verb “said”. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

Body Beat – Effective dialogue needs descriptive action interspersed throughout. It gives detail and context. If dialogue is the best way to reveal a character (and it truly is), the second best way is the description that accompanies dialogue. This includes the use of silence, as demonstrated through pause or hesitation.

Serviceable, Better, Best:

• “There must be a solution to this problem,” he pondered thoughtfully.
• “There must be a solution to this problem,” he said, lost in thought.
• “There must be a solution to this problem.” He stared at the task at hand though narrowed eyes and stroked his beard. “Nope. I got nothing. We’re screwed.”

Guidelines for Using Speech Tags

• Don’t use speech tags.
• If you must use a tag, keep it simple: stick to said and asked
• Place said or asked after the speaker, not before
• “Does this look infected to you?” asked Stewart. The tag word calls too much attention to itself.
• “Does this look infected to you?” Stewart asked. The tag word here is almost invisible.

Use accents and regional dialects sparingly. Once you start to spell dialogue phonetically and load the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.

Keep exclamation points under control, unless you want your characters screaming all the time.

Characters living in the past need to speak like they’re living in the past. Contemporary turns of phrase will shatter the fourth wall and pull readers out of the story.

Does that mean you have to become an expert in past patterns of speech? No, but you do need to know enough to make your readers think you are. A hint of it will do.

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