A Duel of Words: Dialogue and Action, Part 1
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My annual stint in an online writers’ conference (the Catholic Writer’s Conference, of which I’ve been a non-Catholoic guest for the past several years) has me doing a chat workshop on writing dialogue and action. And, as often happens, this has resulted in a blog.

Without further ado, here is a Duel of Words…

JERROD:    Constance, I’d like you to meet my friend, Peter Harrison.

CONSTANCE:    I’m glad to meet you.
PETER:    The pleasure is all mine, my lady.  (He squints, trying to read her mind.)  Oh, that was dumb!
JERROD:    I agree!
PETER:    I apologize, my lady.
CONSTANCE:    No need, sir.
JERROD:    What’s the matter, Peter?  Forget that she’s a Priestess of the Silver Flame and a mind-reader?
PETER:    One of these days, friend! Would it be rude just to bow?
CONSTANCE:    No … no, I don’t think so.
JERROD:    Don’t you think you’re overdoing it a bit?
PETER:    No, I don’t think so.
CONSTANCE:    I don’t think so, either.  Leave him alone, Jerrod.  At least he knows the meaning of the word ‘respect.’
JERROD:    Him???
PETER:    Yeah, me.

This dialogue is a “greeked” version of one I found in a manuscript I critiqued years ago for a writers’ workshop. It’s set in the throne room of a palace in which live the Queen—a powerful sorceress—and her husband and King, whose checkered past includes a stint as, essentially, a Jedi Knight. He has just stumbled onto an old war buddy and brought him home to wifey. In the original scene, there was a lot of moving around and other “stage business.”  I removed all of that so the dialogue could stand (or not) on its own.

This is only a piece of the scene, by the way. The scene as a whole went on in the same vein for about three pages. At the end of those three pages, I knew almost nothing new about the characters in the scene . . . except what the writer had them tell me outright—for example, that Constance was a Priestess of the Silver Flame and a mind reader. I had no idea what the Silver Flame was or what sort of powers—beyond mind-reading—it might confer.

man and woman on sofaDialogue and action are both critical to moving a story forward, giving the reader information about the characters—both factual and emotional—showing the reader who they are. What we know most viscerally about the characters in a book are demonstrated by what they say and what they do. This does not mean, by the way, that they should talk about themselves. It’s how they talk about each other and the events and processes of life that tell us who they are.

In my tours of duty as a pro-critiquer for writing workshops and a freelance editor, I see a lot of dialogue that goes nowhere and action that moves as if it was written in a vat of molasses.

One of the ways in which a writer can undermine the success of dialogue is to use inappropriate tags. A tag is that little bit of action before or after a character speaks that tells us—among other things—the emotional or physical state of the speaker, or what they were doing as they spoke. Dialogue is, at once, one of the most essential tools of characterization and one of the easiest ways to undermine it.

“I’m wounded!” she said lightly.

The above line of dialogue was in a manuscript I got at a writer’s conference some years back. In the context of this story, the coupling of this exclamation with an inappropriate modifier suggested that the speaker was so much a Mage that she had ceased to feel pain. Since this was not the case, it made the narrative voice (and hence the writer) seem unreliable. The writer meant that she said it weakly or faintly. He simply used the wrong word.

“You’re so smart!” he bellowed wryly.

In addition to an inappropriate modifier (bellowed wryly?) this snippet is what is commonly called “said-book-ism”: People bellow and exhort when perhaps they ought to just say something. I critiqued a manuscript recently that went for over 1000 words of dialogue without once using the word “said”, so skittish was the writer about using it. People questioned, queried, bellowed, uttered and did a lot of things that got in the way of the reader actually hearing the dialogue as a real conversation between two people.

spiral-staircase2Adverbial tags can easily become a crutch the writer uses to provide emotional content to a character’s words. Here’s an example:

Ariel followed Dinsdale down the long, dark flight of stairs. At the top of the third landing she slipped and fell.  Below her, Dinsdale stopped and glanced back over his shoulder. “What’s the matter?” he asked callously. Good God, she might have broken her neck.

Dinsdale’s dialogue could just as easily have read: “What’s the matter?” he asked fearfully. The only difference between Dinsdale being a jerk or a gentleman is in the adverb chosen to modify “asked.”  This should raise a few red flags. Let’s try a different approach:

Ariel followed Dinsdale down the long, dark flight of stairs. At the top of the third landing she slipped and fell.  Below her, Dinsdale stopped and glanced back over his shoulder. Hell, he thought, she might have broken her neck and stuck him with having to dispose of the body. “Trying to reach the bottom more quickly, my lady?” he asked.

The only adverb here appears inside the dialogue, but there’s no question that Dinsdale is a heartless so and so. We know it because of his inner dialogue about Ariel which sets up the line about reaching the bottom more quickly and leaves the reader in no doubt that it’s meant to be sarcastic.

So, what does a good dialogue do? You may have heard this before, but here goes. A good dialogue:

  • reveals character
  • distinguishes the characters from each other
  • advances plot
  • contributes to the emotional resonance of a scene
  • creates excitement, fondness, tension, etc. around the ideas, plot developments and characters

What does a good dialogue look like? Here’s a short one that I think covers the bases:

“Did you see Susan today?”
“Today? No, why?” Tony peered across the stage to where a knot of actors assembled in the stage-left wings. He checked, again, to make sure the stunt pistol he needed for the upcoming scene was in his suit pocket.
“She’s dyed her hair pink,” Eric said. “She says it’s ‘cause you hate pink.”

Look at all the things this short snippet tells the reader about the characters. You know immediately that the characters you’re eavesdropping on are actors waiting to go onstage in a play. Just the glance across the stage may be enough to allow you to visualize the place, and a quick mention of the other actors populates the scene. You may also suspect, based on the dialogue, that Susan and Tony were a couple who split acrimoniously. Further, you know that Susan is prone to impulsive behavior and possibly revenge … and you haven’t even met her yet.

All this in three lines of dialogue with two sentences of setting.

I’d like to close with  an important safety tip: Don’t use transitive verbs for tags. A transitive verb is one that takes a direct object. Such as “uttered”, “dismissed”, “inveighed”. “Uttered” requires a direct object as in, He uttered a cry. “Cry” is the object of the verb “uttered.” So “Ouch,” he uttered. doesn’t work. “Ouch,” he cried. works because “cried” doesn’t require a direct object.

Next time, I’d like to chat about action scenes and the ways in which they move.

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Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff is the co-author author of the New York Times and Locus bestseller STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, and a founding member of Book View Cafe.

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A Duel of Words: Dialogue and Action, Part 1 — 9 Comments

  1. Some malign student-writing manual advised young writers to avoid ‘said’, and they’ve been doing it ever since. I am told they teach it in elementary school.
    Your second point is particularly neglected. I spend all my time urging pupils to make characters sound distinctive. At the very minimum I suppose you could make each dwarf begin with ‘By Durin’s Beard!’ every time he opens his mouth. ‘By Durin’s Beard! A tall skinny latte, no foam, please!’

  2. In isolation, the “lightly” line makes me think someone said something cutting, and she’s laughing it off — how falsely is not revealed by the sentence.

  3. When I was still teach I gave my students the exercise to write a confrontation between two people. Now take out everything but the stuff between quote marks. does it still work? Do we know who is speaking?

    Next step, go back to the original scene and strip out the dialogue, actions only. Does it still work? Do the emotions show through?

    Great fun as an exercise. By the way, Jennifer Stevenson writes some wonderful short pieces that are dialogue only. One is in “Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls” another in “Shadow Conspiracy Volume I”

  4. Brenda: Well, if every dwarf does it, that’s not very distinctive, is it? Heck, if even one dwarf did it every time he spoke, I’d be wondering: “By Durin’s Beard, I was foolish enough to blaspheme before Durin’s altar, for which the priest cursed me…”

  5. Phyllis, I often strip my dialogue bare when drafting a conversation scene, but never thought of doing that with the dialogue actions as well. Thanks for sharing that!

  6. Sarah, that’s one of my techniques—to check dialogue without action. In fact, I often draft dialogue without any action—sometimes putting important stuff in parenthetical comments like a screenplay). Then I go back and put in the appropriate tags, internal dialogues and and “stage business”.

    I find it helps the dialogue to flow and to be more spontaneous. If often don’t know exactly where a dialogue is really going until I write it. It may end up somewhere other than where I planned simply because a character says something I didn’t anticipate and i stop and thing “Huh, yeah, he should ask that question or make that observation here.”

  7. All excellent advice, though I thought a said-bookism was a tag with a verb or even a noun that is not speech. One can bellow words, but “Hey, everybody, I’m here,” he grinned. One cannot grin words.

    Maybe it includes both?

  8. I’ve always thought of it as the general fear of the word “said” that results in contortions that include grinning, and other such applications.

    I usually refer to it as “book sadism” because it hurts to read it.

    When I found that one of my clients had used everything BUT the word “said” or “asked” in over 1000 words of prose, I was especially disheartened because we’d had the discussion about it prior to his writing his latest piece and I thought he’d gotten the message.

    When I called him on it the first time, he said, “But I read in these books on writing that you should avoid ‘said’.” So, I think the consensus here about where these ideas are coming from are correct. Though possible the writers of the How To books didn’t mean for their encouragement to be creative to be taken to such an extreme.

    Ultimately with my client, came down to him not trusting me because I hadn’t written a book on writing (only articles, alas) and I didn’t at that time have a single NYT credit to my name. But shortly thereafter he had some of the work I’d done for him critiqued by a NYT bestselling mystery writer who gave it glowing praise , so I thought he’d gotten over his sense that he couldn’t trust my word creds.

    Ah, well. I’m hoping against hope that I will be able prove myself 🙂