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Five Clever Tips for Better Dialogue
Do we really need ‘tags’ when writing dialogue? Such as ‘he said’, ‘she said’, etc? Technically called ‘inquits’, they act as stage directions to convey to the reader, perhaps subconsciously, who is speaking and - sometimes - in what mood or manner.
The modern convention is that they should be invisible, like carpentry nails. To decorate our dialogue with colourful tags like ‘he snortled’, ‘she chortled’, ‘they fumed’, etc, is perceived today as clumsy. The reader trips over them and falls out of the story.
True, florid tags can be used to good effect when writing comedy. ('"Yes. But perhaps no! Who knows?" he verbigerated in despair’). But if you don’t intend to be funny - or the humour doesn’t work - the reader will yearn to hide your thesaurus.
Solution #1: Don’t use dialogue tags at all if it’s obvious from the context who’s speaking. If it’s not obvious, a volley of innocuous inquits like ‘he said’, ‘she said’, and the like, may be forgiven. But they’re boring. Sometimes, you do need to convey the manner in which a character speaks, and without using too many adverbs - the sign of an amateur. So...
Solution #2: Characterise the speaker, and mark who’s speaking, by using a variation of the Pathetic Fallacy. This is the poetic device of granting human emotions to non-human phenomena or objects. It’s a nifty little trick when writing dialogue.
NOT: ‘"Sir, you insult me," he glowered.’ Properly speaking, ‘glower’ cannot be used as a verb for a speech act. (We’ve all done this, and worse, but - if overdone - it becomes hilarious.)
INSTEAD: "‘Sir, you insult me." His eyebrows lifted with menace.’ OR ‘The shadows darkened in his face.’ OR ‘The room grew cold.’ OR ‘Thunder crackled in the hills. The storm was growing closer.’
It is now clear from the obliging behaviour of the environment both who is speaking, and in what manner.
Solution #3: Let the other character imply who’s speaking to them, in terms that can apply only to that person.
For example: ‘Will you please put down that Ipod [cat, poignard, etc] and listen to me?’ If.the character has previously been fiddling with an Ipod [cat, poignard, etc], to the annoyance of the other character, it’s obvious who is being addressed.and by whom.
Solution #4: Give each character a distinctive way of speaking. Done to excess, it becomes a caricature but we all have our own tics of speech.
One character might be blunt, using short words and sentences; another might never get to the point. One person might be a moaner, another a happy little soul, and yet another a remorseless wit. And so on. If our players are well enough characterised, their personalities should show in every word they speak.
‘These diamonds are so pretty.’
‘Glass is cheaper.’
‘No doubt madame will find, over time, that diamonds have an appreciable investment value.’
‘Is you comin’ or not? The ruddy ‘orse has been waiting this past forty minutes.’
A reader of this Edwardian story set in a jewellery shop would have no need of dialogue tags to distinguish clearly between the newly-wed bride, her dour husband, the salesman and the hackney cab driver.
Solution #5: Let characters convey their moods with actions not with adverbs.
NOT: ‘"That is very foolish," she said, reprovingly.’
INSTEAD: ‘"That is very foolish." She made a close inspection of her fingertips.’ OR ‘She clicked her ballpoint pen.’ OR ‘She bit her finger-roll in half.’
Use this device too often in a novel and readers will cry ‘How well s/he writes!’ rather than ‘what a good story!’. No matter. A story, so grossly over-written, will probably win the Booker prize...
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