Writing Tips & Tools

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Lesson #14 - Dialogue Mechanics con't

by Bonnie Calhoun

Today we are continuing editing lessons from the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

These lessons will be shortened overviews of the chapters and by no means should be a substitute for buying the book. I'm rereading but not posting a lot of good stuff!

Let's continue. We've been working on Dialogue Mechanics.

Here are some dialogue faux pas...

"I hate to admit that," he grimaced.

"Come closer," she smiled.

"So you've changed your mind," he chuckled.

To use verbs like these three for speaker attributions is to brand yourself as an amateur...And to stick your character with an action that is physically impossible. No one outside of hack fiction has ever been able to grimace or smile or chuckle a sentence!

We're all in favor of choosing exactly the right verb for the action, but when you're writing speaker attributions the right verb is nearly always said.

The reason those well-intentioned attempts at variety don't work is that verbs other than said tend to draw attention away from the dialogue.

There are other ways to keep your speaker attributions transparent. Don't open a paragraph of dialogue with the speaker attribution. Instead, start a paragraph with dialogue and place the speaker attribution at the first natural break in the first sentence. ("I disagree," he said. "Plungers have...)

Place the character's name or pronoun first in a speaker attribution ("Dave said"). Reversing the two ("said Dave"), though often done, is less professional. It has a slightly old-fashioned, first-grade-reader flavor ("Run spot, run" said Jane.)

After all, "said he" fell out of favor sometime during the Taft administration...LOL!


First check your dialogue for explanations. It may help to take a highlighter and mark every place where an emotion is mentioned outside of dialogue.

Cut the explanations and see how the dialogue reads without them. Better? Worse? If it's worse, then start rewriting your dialogue.

As long as you have your highlighter out, mark every -ly adverb. How many are there? How many of them are based on an adjective describing an emotion? You can probably do without most of them.

How about your speaker attributions? Any physical impossibilities? Any verbs other than said? Remember though, there are occasional exceptions, even innocuous verbs like replied or answered lack the unobtrusiveness of said.

Can you get rid of some of your speaker attributions entirely? Just drop them and see if it's still clear who is speaking.

Have you started a paragraph with a speaker attribution?

Name before noun ("Renni said") rather than the other way around ("said Renni")?

Have you referred to a character more than one way in the same scene (using different forms of their name)?

Ellipses for gaps, dashes for interruptions, right? (I'm very bad at this one, right Mimi?)

How often have you paragraphed your dialogue? Try paragraphing a little more often and see how it reads.

1 Comment:

  1. Judy Thomas said...
    Thanks for these, Bonnie... they are much appreciated!

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