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Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part II)

In this post, the second in a two-part series, award-winning author Eleanor D. Trupkiewicz follows up on her discussion of realistic dialogue with an impassioned plea on using dialogue tags and attributions, emphasizing the use of "said."

Welcome back! Part I of this two-part post talked about two key aspects of writing dialogue. First, dialogue isn’t usually the place to use complete sentences because most people in everyday conversations speak in phrases and single words. Second, effective dialogue takes correct punctuation so the reader doesn’t get yanked out of the story by a poorly punctuated exchange.

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Remember, the goal in writing fiction is to keep the reader engaged in the story. But don’t give up on writing to spend the rest of your life doing something easier, like finding the Holy Grail, just yet. There’s one more key aspect that makes dialogue effective for fiction writers.

Problem: The Great He Said/She Opined Debate

In Part I, I mentioned learning from my grade school English teacher about complete sentences. Another subject she covered in that class was the importance of using synonyms and avoiding repetition.

To this day, that discussion drives me absolutely crazy.

Thousands of budding writers all over the world heard those words and deduced that they would be penalized if they repeated the word said in any work of fiction they ever wrote. So they dutifully found thesauruses and started looking up other words to use.

I’d like to submit that thousands of budding writers have been misled. Here’s my take:

Stop!

Do not touch your thesaurus to find another word that means said.

The attribution said is fine. In fact, when readers are skimming along through a novel at warp speed, the word said is just like a punctuation mark—it doesn’t even register in readers’ minds (unless used incorrectly, and it would be hard to do that).

But if you draw attention to the mechanics of your story with dialogue like this, you’re guaranteed to lose your reader in total frustration:

“Luke,” she opined, “I need you.”

“Raina,” he implored, “I know you think you do, but—”

“No!” she wailed. “Please!”

Luke shouted, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“You’re being so mean to me,” Raina wept.

With an exchange like that one, you might as well run screaming out of the book straight at the reader, waving a neon sign that says: HEY, DON’T FORGET THAT THIS IS ONLY A WORK OF FICTION AND THESE CHARACTERS AREN’T REAL!!!

Why would you nail yourself into your own proverbial coffin like that?

Here’s my advice. Don’t reach for the thesaurus this time. Leave it right where it is on your shelf. You might never need it again.

Instead, if you need an attribution, use said. If you must use something different for the occasional question, you could throw in “asked” for variety, but not too often.

An even better way to use attributions in dialogue is to use a beat of action instead, like this:

“I just don’t know anymore.” Mary folded her arms. “I think I’m afraid of you.”

Harry sighed. “I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I’m not very good at this.”

That way, you know who’s talking, and you’ve even worked action and character traits into the conversation. It makes for a seamless read.

Two final thoughts:

First, dialogue cannot be smiled, laughed, giggled, or sighed. Therefore, this example is incorrect:

“Don’t tickle me!” she giggled.

You can’t giggle spoken words. You can’t laugh them or sigh them or smile them, either. (I dare you to try it. If it works for you, write me and let me know. We could be on to something.)

Of course, if you’re using said exclusively, then that won’t be a problem.

(How to write funny dialogue.)

Second, let’s talk adverbs. If a writer can be convinced to use said instead of other synonyms, then he or she becomes really tempted to reach for an adverb to tell how the character said something, like this:

“I don’t want to see you again,” Lily said tonelessly.

“You don’t mean that,” Jack said desperately.

“You’re an idiot,” Lily said angrily.

The problem with using adverbs is that they’re always telling to your reader. (Remember that old maxim, “Show, don’t tell”?)

An occasional adverb won’t kill your work, but adverbs all over the place mean weak writing, or that you don’t trust your dialogue to stand without a qualifier. It’s like you’re stopping the movie (the story playing through the reader’s mind) for a second to say, “Oh, but wait, you need to know that Lily said that last phrase angrily. That’s important. Okay, roll tape.”

Why rely on a telling adverb when you could find a better way to show the reader what’s going on in the scene or inside the characters? Try something like this:

Lily turned away and crossed her arms. “I don’t want to see you again.”

“You don’t mean that.” Jack pushed to his feet in a rush.

She glared at him. “You’re an idiot.”

Beats of action reveal character emotions and set the stage far more effectively than an overdose of adverbs ever will.

Conclusion

While a challenge to write, dialogue doesn’t have to be something you dread every time you sit down to your work-in-progress (or WIP). The most effective dialogue is the conversations that readers can imagine your characters speaking, without all the clutter and distractions of synonymous attributions, overused adverbs, and incorrect punctuation.

(Don't use adverbs and adjectives to prettify your prose.)

When in doubt, cut and paste only the dialogue out of your WIP and create one script for each character. Then invite some friends (ones who don’t already think you’re crazy because you walk around mumbling to yourself about your WIP, if you still have any of those) over for dessert or appetizers sometime. Hand out the scripts, assign each person a part, and then sit back and listen. Was a line of dialogue so complicated it made the reader stumble? Do you hear places where the conversation sounds stilted and too formal, or where it sounds too informal for the scene? Does an exchange sound sappy when spoken aloud? Are there words you can cut out to tighten the flow?

And don’t give up your writing to search for the Holy Grail. While the search would be less frustrating sometimes, writing dialogue no longer has to look demonic to you. You know what to do!

Questions

In your current WIP, what sticking points and challenges do you find about writing dialogue? Is a character’s voice giving you trouble? Do you worry you’re overusing an attribution? Do you have a totally opposite opinion about adverbs? The rule about writing fiction is that there really aren’t many hard-and-fast rules, so don’t hesitate to share!

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Dialogue can be one of the most interesting parts of a book to read, but only if it is done right. Sharpen your writing skills and challenge yourself to craft engaging, yet believable dialogue that will keep your readers interested. When you take this online writing workshop you’ll discover how to write dialogue that advances your story’s plot.

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