Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thoughts on Dialogue

Inspired by Roni Griffin's excellent Let's Talk Dialogue blogfest, I'd like to make a few notes on dialogue.

Tags come to mind first. Modern tags are limited in scope and are not used to advance the story. Historically the writer could pen this: she exclaimed excitedly. Now you're better off using she said without the modifier.

That's just an opinion, though, and since it changed once before, who's to say it won't revert back as a new generation of writers come up to speed. Write however you like.

Also, if you can eliminate the tag with action, it's popular to do so. For instance:

"Good night, son," she said. She kissed her son on the forehead.

That's how not to do it. The more popular and modern method is this:

She kissed her son's forehead. "Good night, son."

Subtle. Take your pick. Again, that's just an opinion, but it's a popular opinion. So popular, in fact, that many writers will make it a goal to eliminate all tags via action. Some on this blogfest did just that, with great effect.

Grouping Action and Dialogue
I'm not sure how many of us mind this rule. I suggest you group your action with action, and your dialogue with dialogue. This was the biggest violation I saw on this blogfest. Self-included.

For instance:

She tucked the covers over her son's chest. "Good night." She kissed his forehead. "I love you."

Her son rolled over. "Stop it, Mom, I'm too old for that."

Again, that's how not to do it. Try this instead, grouping action on action, dialogue on dialogue:

She tucked the covers over her son's chest and kissed his forehead. "Good night, son. I love you".

"Stop it, Mom, I'm too old for that." Her son rolled over.

If the body language is necessary for the dialogue, insert it, but try not to break up the dialogue with needless nodding, gesturing, shrugs, and so forth. For instance:

"I don't know." He shrugged. He nodded. He waved his hands and squinted and smiled and please stop the needless action and continue with the dialogue. "Maybe I should have known better."

Instead, write this:

"I don't know. Maybe I should have known better."

Anyway. Just a couple of quick thoughts on the dialogue stuffages as inspired by the blogfest.

What are your thoughts? Did you learn something new? Re-learn something old you'd forgotten?

I sure did. I realized I'd been getting lazy on my tags... some of yall humbled me with your dialogue constructs.

- Eric


Elisabeth said...

The rule of thumb as I understand it if you use them, only use the verb to say for attributions and if you use actions separate them from the words.

Good advice. This is often a difficult area for most writers.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I like eliminating tags with action, although the "shrugged, nodded, waved, etc." had me laughing!

Unknown said...

Interesting. I don't use many tags, but I'm probably guilty of putting too much action between the dialogue.

Phoenix said...

I definitely like the simplicity of this style of story-telling. The more the author gets out of the way of the story (unless it's first person, of course) the more effective and seamless it is. I don't really need "he said" or "she said" - I can usually guess who's speaking the dialogue.

Well done in explaining this!

Eric W. Trant said...

Elisabeth: I brought this up because I do think most writers pay more attention to the tags than they do the structure. I'm reading a book now that moves dia-action-dia-action, just like in my bad example!

Diane: Glad you liked the shrugging. I wrote a story a while back and noticed my characters were shrugging and nodding all the time. Gotta watch it, bad habit.

Mary: Nothing wrong with action in the dialogue, so long as it pertains to the dialogue. It should be relevant.

Phoenix: Thanks! I caught myself using too many tags in this blogfest, so it it helped me improve my latest work. I don't write much in first person. One short story, I think, and that's about it. Everything I write is 3rd POV.

- Eric

Ann Best said...

Thanks for commenting on my blog. So I came over to see if I could find out about your son "Connor," and found this excellent post on dialogue.

And avoiding the unnecessary tag. I get very annoyed if I read a book with tags like "she looked at him longingly," etc etc. As an English major, I never read the sort of books/stories that do that. Never read the popular "romances."

Keep the action and emotional impact going. The power comes through the verbs and not adverbial tags.

The examples here merging dialogue with action are excellent.

Eric W. Trant said...

Thanks, Ann. If you scroll down on my page you'll see my boy Connor and me at the Cub Scout regatta last year.

Grandkids sure are fun. My wife and I are making one more for the grampsies, due in November.

I read slush novels now and again. They're good studies if you pay attention. I don't always finish the book, but I'll take away something from the read.

But I do try to read good books on the whole.

- Eric

Theresa Milstein said...

"I don't know." He shrugged. He nodded. He waved his hands and squinted and smiled and please stop the needless action and continue with the dialogue. "Maybe I should have known better."

This part is so funny!

I love your examples. This past weekend, I took a workshop on dialogue. She read some examples, but more to show abstract concepts (what was left unsaid. What we learned about character) than the nitty gritty of tags and advancing action.

Jemi Fraser said...

Good points. It's interesting to see how dialogue styles go in and out of fashion :)

sarahjayne smythe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sarahjayne smythe said...

Great post. I've worked for a while now getting rid of as many tags as I can in my writing and going with body language and action instead. It helps get rid of the adverbs, too. :)

Anonymous said...

Like everything, tag in moderation. And leave the bobble heads for the dashboard : )


Nighfala said...

Roni at Fiction Groupie a while back talked about buried dialogue, which is when you have action on both sides of the words.

She tucked the covers over her son's chest. "Good night. I love you." She kissed his forehead.

That's the wrong way, because the words get visually lost in their description sandwich. This is something I didn't know before.

I tend to use action (or beats) in place of pauses. The dialogue is paused by them, so I try to put them where I think the speaker would naturally pause.

So, "I don't know." He shrugged. "Maybe I should have known better." implies a brief pause while shrugging. But if the words are pouring out of him, I don't use a beat.

"I don't know. Maybe I should have known better. But how could I? How was I to know?"

I do think that the not-yet-published (such as myself) do need to pay attention to conventions and apply them, if only to impress upon agents that we are, in fact, paying attention.

Eric W. Trant said...

Theresa: Thanks for the compliment. I sure enjoyed your most recent post. You're famous!

Jemi: I expect the flowery writing will come back as a sub-culture at some point. It might be its own genre, something along the lines of steampunk or such.

Sarah: I forgot about the tags until this blogfest. I hadn't looked at them for a while, but now I can't stop noticing them.

Cat: Bobble heads in dialogue. I like that.

Christine: Using the tags as a beat. I do that, too. Like Cat said, though, use in moderation.

- Eric