Good morning and welcome to Chaos Theory of Writing day. I’m really pleased to introduce our readers to suspense author Tracy March! Tracy’s going to give us the skinny on dialogue and how writers can use it to make your stories pop. Please help me give Tracy a warm welcome.
Dialogue…love writing it or hate it, dialogue is one of the first thing editors look for when reading a submission.
Writing dialogue is hard work. So hard that we sometimes use the avoidance tactic of substituting big blocks of more easily written narrative, telling what was said instead of having characters speak. More often, we resort to dreaded mechanical tricks to ease the pain of writing dialogue that effectively conveys character and emotion.
Warning: AVOID THOSE TRICKS. That was my outdoor voice!
We want our dialogue to sound professional, to sing to that editor like Susan Boyle dreaming her dream on Britain’s Got Talent. So we have to identify the faulty mechanics that may seem to make dialogue strong, but only make it weaker. Editors know these tricks. They have e-mail outboxes full of rejections to prove it.
What tricks, what tricks?
Explaining Dialogue to Readers
“I can’t believe it,” she said in astonishment.
Telling the reader how our heroine feels does them a favor, right? Saves them the energy of having to figure it out for themselves. But our readers want to engage, they want to figure it out. If our dialogue is well-written, there’s no need to patronize readers by explaining the obvious. “I can’t believe it” conveys astonishment without explanation.
Pushing an Emotion on Readers
“It’s dark in there,” she said, frightened.
So our heroine is frightened. It says so. But we want the reader to feel the emotion, to be as frightened as she is. But “It’s dark in there” doesn’t convey fright. If the dialogue doesn’t show the emotion, there is tension between the dialogue and the explanation. Readers may not notice this, but editors sure will. And readers will have a niggling idea that something is wrong.
Using Adverbs to Explain Dialogue
“Come here,” she said lovingly.
We’re smuggling emotions into our dialogue here. Our best bet is to keep the –ly adverbs to a minimum—seriously!
But wait, if giving up the –lys sounds worse than giving up a daily 2pm Diet Coke fix, there are exceptions! If your adverbs modify the verb said, you can keep them. Think “she said softly.” Softly is how she said the words—a dialogue cue. Lovingly, above, is how she felt when she said, “Come here.” We need to show her lovingness through word choice, body language and context, not with an –ly adverb.
Slipping Explanations into Speaker Attributions
The only reason we need speaker attributions is so our readers know who is talking. One dreaded trick is using speaker attributions to slip in explanations of dialogue. “She purred.” “He growled.” While animal sounds have their place (usually at a zoo), using verbs like these for attributions task our characters with an action that is physically impossible. Have you ever purred or growled a sentence? Go ahead, make that purring sound with your tongue and try to speak!
As afraid as we may be to see too many saids threading through our pages, for speaker attributions, said is almost always the right verb. We love variety—demanded, inquired, replied. But the reason those verbs don’t work is that they draw attention away from the dialogue, jumping out at readers and distracting them with writing mechanics.
Well-renowned editors Renni Browne and Dave King make the best argument in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. “Said isn’t even read the way other verbs are read. It is, and should be, an almost purely mechanical device—more like a punctuation mark than a verb. It’s absolutely transparent, which makes it graceful and elegant. Which, actually, is another reason to avoid explanations and adverbs. Even when you use them with said (we said sternly), they tend to entangle your readers in your technique rather than leaving them free to concentrate on your dialogue.”
Behold our new favorite attribution: SAID. I wish I knew how to type a halo over top of it! I’m depending on your imagination to help me out here.
So there you have it. The so-called rules. Yet we all have seen these rules blatantly broken in published works by best-selling authors. So why not by us? Are you a rule-breaker? If so, which ones and why? I’m a said girl and I crack up every time I read an animal-sound speaker attribution—but that’s just me. Maybe your story is set in a zoo, and that’s okay too!
* * *
RU CREW, what do you do to keep your dialogue fresh? Do you have any dialogue quirks?
Please join us again on Monday for C.J. Redwine’s latest query letter critique.
Tracy March writes about ethical dilemmas in unethical times. As a former pharmaceutical sales executive, Tracy draws inspiration from her experiences and encounters in the medical field and her love/hate relationship with politics.
Tracy is a member of International Thriller Writers, a contributing editor to The Big Thrill webzine, and a member of ITW Debut Authors Program Social Media Team. She is also a member of Romance Writers of America.
Tracy’s debut thriller, Girl Three, set in Washington, D.C., will be released in June 2011. Girl Three placed in several contests in 2010 including First Place in Chicago-North RWA Chapter’s Fire and Ice Contest, First Place in Valley Forge RWA Chapter’s Sheila Contest, and Second Place in Orange County RWA Chapter’s Orange Rose Contest.
Tracy lives in Yorktown, Virginia, with her superhero husband who works for NASA. They recently experienced two years living in Washington, D.C, where they discovered enough drama to inspire a lifetime of stories. Visit Tracy at www.TracyMarch.com.
- Powerful Settings: Finding What is Unique for Your Characters…and You by Tracy March
- The Best Way to Edit, by Tracy Sumner
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for June 13-17: Wynter Daniels, Wendy S. Marcus & Tracy March
- Snapping Red Flags by Tracy March
- Ask An Editor: Verb Tense