We've done a few posts on how to improve your dialogue and your dialogue tags. (You can read them here for a quick refresher.)
Today we'll give you one quick reminder, and one quick tip to make your editing easier.
1. Remember that "said" is neutral. The reader's eye skims over it.
You want to trim down your dialogue tags, sure, but you also don't want to overdo it by replacing "said" with too many alternatives. The farther you go from simple choices like "said", "replied", or "answered", the more noticeable the dialogue tag becomes. And this is one instance where you don't want your word choice to be noticeable, because it tends to disrupt the flow of the narrative. Eliminating a tag altogether, using action to clue the reader in to who's talking, or using said are generally all better choices than "he remarked."
2. If you want to focus on dialogue tags during an edit, use your search/find function in your word program and search for ,". If you search for the comma+close quotation marks combination, you'll find all the places where you used a dialogue tag. And if you have a habit of using too many tags (or of using too many adverbs with your dialogue tags) in your early drafts, using the Find function lets you write those early drafts without having to agonize over every tag, because you know you can fix them later.
Just make sure you do remember to go back and fix them later.
Today's tip is about a common error we see authors making, and it will come in handy as you practice your showing skills during our summer workshops.
Blocking that is attached to dialogue typically becomes a separate sentence.
(Quick reminder: "blocking" is when you describe the action that's occurring during a dialogue scene. It's a great way to remind your readers who's talking without using dialogue tags, as well as to demonstrate emotions and conflicts.)
WRONG: "I'm tired of school," she scowled.
She scowled is a separate action from the dialogue, so it doesn't belong in the sentence.
RIGHT: "I'm tired of school." She scowled.
WRONG: "I can't do it," she stepped back.
RIGHT: "I can't do it." She stepped back.
Sometimes it can be tricky to decide if you're using blocking or a dialogue tag, since some verbs can function either way. Words like groaned, laughed, cried, sighed can potentially describe how something is said, or an action taken in addition to the dialogue. When you run across one of those types of verbs, ask yourself if it's describing the way the words were said or the action taken by the character to decide which style of punctuation you need.
Judging from the amount of manuscripts I've seen where characters don't ever use contractions, everyone else must have had the same English teachers I did. Mine drilled into us in school the evils of contractions. Using contractions in a paper, even a fiction project, was enough to give them fits.
I did not enjoy high school English, in case you were wondering.
I'm here to tell you the honest truth. Your English teachers were wrong.
Sure, if you're writing professional papers, you want to use more formal language. But in fiction, uncontracted words are generally more distracting than contracted ones; they jolt a reader out of the flow of the reading experience. Especially in dialogue. For the love of all you hold dear, please use contractions in your dialogue. If contractions suit the time period and the style of the character you're writing, then use them. It's how most English-speakers talk.
(PS: I know there are elision-type contractions in many Romance languages at least; I'm curious if writers working in those languages run across the same issues, or if contractions are more accepted in non-English literature? Feel free to chime in below if you've got experience to share.)
Today's tip is for authors who have a hard time with dialogue. Which includes me! But the great thing about having been really bad at dialogue is that I've learned quite a few techniques make mine sound better, and I like sharing. (Knowledge, at least; chocolate is a different matter.) And if I can improve my dialogue, so can you.
One of the most important keys to interesting, authentic-sounding dialogue, is voice. So how do you find a character's speaking voice?
You have to try walking in their shoes. Step up to the mic, and imagine you're them, as it were. Consider everything you know about this character: what's their background, education level, age, gender, orientation, politics, wealth, religion, ethnicity, current emotional state, how they feel about the person they're talking to, motivation overall and within the scene.
It's a lot. But in real life, that's how our word choices and speech patterns are determined. Personally, I do a lot of profiling of my main and secondary characters. Once I develop a clear enough feeling for who this person is that I'm writing about, the voice begins to flow. For minor characters, I keep in mind simpler things: age, station, job, mood. Five year olds shouldn't sound like twenty year olds, and neither should sound like sixty year olds. A prison guard doesn't talk like a school teacher out on the prairie; a devout priest will sound different from a policeman. And you can use those contrasts to your advantage and create an extra layer of subtext and tension in your story.
Flat dialogue, or characters who all sound the same can distance your readers from the story. Giving everyone their own, slightly different voice in the chorus makes for a much more interesting read. Diving this deep into your characters' heads may sound like a lot of work, but it pays off in more ways than just better dialogue.
Today we'll be talking about how to punctuate around your dialogue. The rules are different depending on if you're using dialogue tags or blocking, and we see a lot of authors get mixed up by the differences. But never fear - we're here to help!
Let's start by reviewing the difference between a dialogue tag and blocking. Dialogue tags are things like he said, she asked, he shouted, she replied. They're like gift tags at the end of the sentence, to let the reader know who is speaking. Blocking is a description of the action of the person speaking. It's a sneaky way to let the reader know who's talking, how they feel by what they're doing, and what else might be going on in the setting.
So. If you're using a dialogue tag, it's still part of the dialogue sentence. That means the period doesn't go until after the dialogue tag, like so:
"I like to eat green eggs and ham," said Sam-I-am.
Notice how there's a comma instead of a period inside the dialogue, then the quotation marks; then a period after the dialogue tag.
If your character is asking a question, it looks like this:
"Would you eat them in a box?" asked Sam-I-am.
So in cases where you're using ! or ?, those go inside the quotation marks, followed by a period at the end of the sentence, even though the dialogue was a question or an exclamation.
Now, if you're using blocking, everything is simpler. You punctuate normally, with the dialogue and the blocking in separate sentences. It might look something like this:
"I like to eat green eggs and ham." Sam-I-am licked his lips as held out the plate to his friend.
"Hmph. I do not like green eggs and ham!"
Sam-I-am shook his head. "How do you know? Have you tried them? Try them! Try them, and you may."
Blame my kids' school for the fan-fiction, it was Dr. Seuss week. Hopefully it helped to illustrate how dialogue punctuation works!
Today we're bringing you another tip on how to improve your dialogue writing skills.
Remember who you're talking to, and what they know.
Have you ever read a passage of dialogue that started with something like, "As you know, Bob, first we had to disentangle the fragmabobulator from the zorgatron..." and then the dialogue goes on, listing all the info that person A (let's call him Fred) has about the situation.
Do you see the problem, though?
Why is Fred telling this to Bob, if Bob already knows it?
Obviously, Fred is telling Bob so that the reader can find out. But it's usually pretty boring and transparent. It's too much of an info dump and it tends to turn into a monologue.
There's a slightly better version, the "Do you remember the time we did X?" "Oh, yeah, and then Y happened?" This can work, if it's done well. But it needs to come up naturally; something should spark the memory organically.
I remember seeing one famous author pull this off with a scientist character talking possibilities over with another character; when she realizes he has no idea how the science works, she stops to explain. In that case, it worked well because the worldbuilding had already established the second character would not have had access to scientific education, but was intelligent enough to understand. And they had a good enough rapport that the dialogue was interesting. It felt genuine, like two friends, not like a lesson.
Think about how dialogue progresses between two people who know each other in real life situations the next time you want to use dialogue to drop some important info on your readers. Dialogue is a great tool, but you have to take into account what the characters already know, and what they need to know, for the conversation to proceed, and not just what you want your readers to learn.
Today's editing tip is a twofer, so hang onto the seat of your pants. This one will help you deal with showing vs. telling, and it will also improve your dialogue. Are you ready?
Use blocking instead of unnecessary dialogue tags.
Blocking, in case the term is unfamiliar, is how you describe the characters' movements within the scene, rather like stage directions in a play. Most people don't stand or sit completely still when they speak; they fidget, they move around. If someone were to stay motionless, rigid, that would probably indicate some sort of internal distress. Letting your characters move a bit can make them feel more natural.
You can try giving characters habits, like poker "tells", to indicate specific moods. But you don't want to overdo it, and use the exact same movement every time. Verb choice can also show a reader how your characters are feeling. Jogging, running, and fleeing all have different connotations, but describe similar movements.
Within dialogue, you can use blocking to show a character's mood, or the relationship between two or more individuals. Here's an example of what that might look like:
“Hush, baby girl, it’s all right, everything is all right,” I told her, reaching out to sweep her up in a hug.
She scurried back, away from me, pulling her blankets up tighter. “I want Mama." A steady stream of tears began carving their way down her dirty cheeks. "Want MAMA!"
Without any other information, just the blocking, a reader should be able to tell a lot about the dynamics between these two. Hopefully this mini-scene should also create an emotional response in the reader, and a lot of that labor depends on the blocking and not on the dialogue. (And notice there's only one dialogue tag.)
We see a lot of writers asking how to improve their dialogue. And let's face it, authentic-sounding dialogue is hard to write. There are a lot of different things that go into a good conversation between characters. Today we'll talk about one of the basics.
Don't go overboard with your dialogue tags.
A dialogue tag, for anyone not familiar with the term, is the part after the spoken words that informs the reader who was talking. "Let's go to the mall," she said. At first, many new authors end up trying to vary their dialogue tags each time. After all, we're always told not to use the same words over and over again, right? The problem is that then you end up with this:
"Let's go to the mall," she suggested.
"No," he replied. "We went there yesterday. I don't want to go again."
"Well, what would you suggest?" she asked.
"I don't know," he grumbled. "I just don't want to go to the mall."
"Why not?" she whined. "You never want to do anything fun."
Did you notice ALL THE DIALOGUE TAGS? When you attach one to every sentence, it becomes distracting. It interferes with the flow of conversation. This is one instance where using the boring word - said - is often better, because said becomes almost neutral in text. We're so used to it that it doesn't interrupt what's going on.
Also be aware that not every sentence needs a tag. You can skip several sentences in between tagging, as long as you don't have a large group talking all at once, and readers can keep up with the verbal ping-pong match and track who's talking.
A great way to reduce your number of dialogue tags is through your use of punctuation. If someone asks a question, you don't need to add "she asked." Or if they yell and you use an exclamation point, you don't need to repeat yourself by saying "he yelled." (And the reverse is true: if you want to get rid of a few exclamation points, cut them and use an emphatic dialogue tag or action to show the mood instead.)
Take a look at the dialogue in your manuscripts, and see if you could stand to chop out some said/asked/replied type words. Happy editing!
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!