Thursday, April 24, 2008

Whispered, Sneered, Glowered...Said

In thinking about discussing the art of writing dialogue with you, I decided to start with cleaning up what, for many newer authors, is a classic mistake - using flowery dialogue tags to convey far too much information.

I know, I know, I'm the girl who always says a writer needs to make every word count but trust me on this one. Dialogue is essential to your plot, your pacing, and your character development. Dialogue tags are useful only to show which character is speaking.

My first draft of DYING TO REMEMBER was rife with the kind of overly descriptive dialogue tags to which I am now adamantly opposed. Every character whispered, sneered, laughed, or "said ___fill in appropriate adverb here___" his or her lines. My rationale was simple. My characters were not wooden puppets simply standing there delivering lines. There was emotion, movement, and life expressed in their dialogue and I wanted to make sure every last shred of that life was brought to the attention of my readers. With that in mind, I embellished every single dialogue tag with adverbs or fancy verbs or, so help me Shakespeare, both.

My first critique partner, pubbed author Celeste Bradley, slammed me on it and rightfully so. Instead of bringing life to my scenes, I was choking them to death. Abundant, descriptive dialogue tags distract the reader and clutter up the page, slowing your novel's pace and yanking your reader out of the flow of dialogue.

I rewrote, using the three strategies I'm going to share with you, and the result was a tightly paced novel where each scene expresses emotion, movement, and life and the critique written by Publisher's Weekly said "sharp, funny dialogue" was one of DTR's strengths.

My Rules For Dialogue Tags:

1. Use "said" in place of more descriptive words as much as possible.

I gleaned this advice from Janet Evanovich (author of the laugh-out-loud funny Stephanie Plum series). She said it would be noticeable to the author (yikes! I've used "said" ten times in one page!) but not to the reader. All the reader notices in the dialogue.

Which is really the point, right? You aren't writing dialogue so you can hurry up and tell the reader your character was speaking "tremulously" or "angrily" or whatever other fantastic adverb you've got up your literary sleeve. You're writing dialogue to advance your plot and develop your characters and the dialogue needs to take center stage.

2. Eschew dialogue tags when they aren't needed.

If you have a scene with only two people, there will be points throughout the scene where you can safely go back and forth between the characters without adding any dialogue tags at all and your reader won't get lost. I think four in a row is about the limit unless you have one of the characters address the other by name to secure the order of the speakers in the reader's mind again. This increases the pace of your novel and lets your dialogue shine in center stage.

Now you're probably thinking, "But C.J.! I have to let the reader know the emotions behind my character's words! I can't just use "said" or nothing at all for my entire book!"

Of course you can't. That's where rule #3 comes in.

3. Use brief descriptive sentences to convey both movement and emotion and use your adverbs sparingly.

A sentence describing a character's action is a great way to make every word count. You can show emotion by a character's actions - the old (but true!) maxim to show, not tell. Don't tell me your character is nervous. Show me her fingers tapping a jagged rhythm against her desk. Let the subtleties of your writing weave the emotion into the scene through your character's movement.

When a sentence describing a character's emotion is called for (You can't always show emotion through body language. Sometimes your character has explore their inner angels and demons.), use active voice and watch your similies and metaphors. A good similie or metaphor can really capture the heart of your scene and bring color and texture to your writing. Too many similies or metaphors in a scene (or in a novel, for that matter) bring clutter and significant irritation on the part of the reader who wishes you would just say what you mean.

Finally, treat adverbs like cayenne pepper - use just enough to add interest and flavor without overpowering your novel.

Here is an example of these three rules in action from a scene in DYING TO REMEMBER:

She was on her ninth piece of paper when she found it. An economy single reserved for the following day to Jason Clarke. Feeling the familiar thrill of the chase, she grabbed her cell phone and punched in a number she’d committed to memory earlier in the day.

“This is Dr. Gallagher.” Crisp, professional, edged with weariness.

“This is Detective Hurley.” A very long pause. She would pay good money to see his expression.

“It’s late.” He sounded wary.

“And yet you couldn’t resist answering.”

“I thought it might be urgent.”

“You thought it might be Quinn needing help with Emily.” She said. “It must be hard to resent her and care about what happens to her at the same time.”

He was silent for so long she worried he might hang up. “Dr. Gallagher?”

“I tricked her.” He said quietly. “I gave her hope that she could rest emotionally. When she decided to trust me, I surprised her into another flashback.”

“You had to.”

“I tell myself the same but it doesn’t help.”

“I’m sorry.” She said gently.

“As am I but that isn’t why you called.” He replied, the momentary vulnerability in his voice disappearing.

“I’m still at the hotel. I’ve found something.” She caught the manager’s glare again as he paced past the office. “Jason Clarke has a room reserved for check-in tomorrow afternoon.”

“Has he really? In that case, I think a welcoming committee would be appropriate.”

“My thoughts exactly, mate. I’ll be over there in less than thirty minutes to discuss strategy.” She said and stood.

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll bring food as well. I know the manager would love to open the kitchen and give me sandwiches to speed me on my way.” She walked to the office door and opened it.

“You’ll do no such thing.” He said sternly.

“You don’t eat sandwiches?”

“Of course I eat sandwiches.” He said. “Just not at - what time is it? - nearly midnight. I don’t eat sandwiches at midnight.”

“Well then, you can watch me eat. We have some strategizing to do.”

“You are not coming over here.”

“I’ll bet that tone works on just about everyone, doesn’t it?” She cheerfully signaled the manager.

“I mean it, Meaghan.”

“There, now, we’ve just moved to a first name basis. How could I possibly stay away? I’ll see you in half an hour.” She clicked the phone shut and turned her attention to the task of intimidating the manager out of a decent midnight snack.


  1. *grins* Awesome post. You know me, I still struggle with this on occasion and slip back into bad habits.


  2. Dialogue tags are the first thing I look for when I go back to do a re-write on a chapter. I always end up taking some out and paring it down. =D


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