“Don’t use any dialog except ‘said,'” he declared ominously.
Oooh. Ouch. I’m not the most adverb-averse editor, and that one made me cringe.
Today, though, we talk about dialog and how to handle it. I could write an entire book about it. If I quote the various editors I know, I could write an encyclopedia about it. Since I’m already doing a wiki for my scifi series, I’ll pass.
Dialog is a gift to the reader. The character opens their mouth, and you learn quite a bit about them. Gender, politics, likes, dislikes, nervous ticks, etc. Tendency to talk in sentence fragments the way this paragraph is written. It also makes a page read faster. Well, it does when the writer doesn’t put one of Shakespeare’s soliloquys in the character’s mouth.
Handling it, though, is a thorny issue. To tag or not to tag? What kind of tag? Comma splices. Untagged dialog. And that dirty word, exposition!
Let’s take tagging first. Tagging is a quick way to let the reader know who’s speaking. However, lately, that old chestnut of use only “said” is under assault.
“Why?” you query.
“It’s invisible!” he ejaculated. (Yes, someone used this. In print. When the standards were stricter. I hope that editor died from the strain of a manuscript laced with you’re/your errors.)
Said/asked is, in fact, invisible, and should be your go-to for tagging dialog. The reader doesn’t really see it. They read the dialog and look for who spoke.
Unless your reader is actually a listener. Books on Tape, its various CD successors, and especially Audible and the public library have made “said” what some in Toastmasters call “hear ache.” Now, that public speaking organization usually means verbal ticks likes excessive ands, ums, the so-called “snicks and smacks” we do without realizing it when speaking. No one cares if you’re doing it over lunch with a coworker. It’s annoying in a speech or while hosting an event. And the word “said” has fallen into this category when it comes to the audiobook. When reading, your eye blows past the word with nary a thought. When Morgan Freeman reads it out loud, you think, “For the love of Joe Burrow, find another word already!”
At the same time, the threat of really distracting words like “queried” and “ejaculated” (never to be used outside sex scenes and clinical writing) still exists. Fortunately, you don’t have to go too far off the beaten path. It’s an opportunity to slip in some unobtrusive stage direction. He mumbled. She shouted. People can grumble, growl, breathe… There’s enough there to give the reader an impression of the character’s mood or demeanor, the perfect combination of showing and telling. Tell them something that shows it quickly and move on.
The single quote vs. the double quote. If you read UK editions of books, you’ll notice all the dialog is in single quotes. In US or Canadian, it’s double. Reverse it for quotes within quotes. Since I’m writing this from a US perspective, I’ll go with double as the default. Why bring it up?
Because, regardless of how your version of English is written, you never use the same type of quotation marks inside a line of dialog as you use outside it. “Well, Bob said, ‘Johnny eats liver without onions.’ I think it’s gross.” In US English, whoever is speaking is quoting Bob directly as marked by double quotes. Bob’s quote also needs to be off-set, but we already used double quotes. So we use single to quote the speaker quoting Bob directly. (If he or she is just paraphrasing, no inner quotes are needed.) The inner quote should always be different from the outer quote, regardless of whether your dialect uses single or double to begin dialog.
Ever read swaths of text where two people talk? Yet you could follow the conversation? Sometimes, tagging and inserting a character action gets to be a bit much. If Joe is talking to Judy, and it’s clear from tagging or actions that Joe had the last line of dialog, you can do a few lines without tagging. The back-and-forth is enough to carry the narrative for maybe half a page. I generally don’t like to do five or six lines untagged without flagging who’s speaking. For starters, we all have short attention spans these days. Also, while “White Room” is an all-time classic song, it makes for a lousy setting. What are these characters doing? Where are they?
Now, you can do an entire story without dialog. I did one, and it was extremely difficult to pull off. On the other hand, Google “They’re Made of Meat,” about two aliens discussing these weird intelligences they found on Earth. You know enough to know they’re not human, but nothing else. Yet the conversation flows effortlessly.
This arose from chaffing against using “said” constantly. Instead of tagging the dialog directly, indicate who’s speaking by having them do something.
“I’m a bit concerned about Jim.” Joe poured another cup of coffee. “He’s just not up to his old game.”
Judy dunked her teabag. “What specifically do you see?”
You knew who said what in that passage. Yet there’s no “Joe said” or “Judy said.” As I mentioned before, “White Room” is a rock and roll classic. White room is not a very good narrative device. Character action in place of dialog tagging is a great way to put the reader in the room with the characters. It also can break up an unavoidable info dump. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder called this “the Pope in the pool.” It referred to a movie that began with the Pope meeting his cardinals. The scene had a lot of expository dialog, the sort of thing normally handled over coffee or in a meeting across a desk. However, this was an early scene in the movie. Instead of giving the action a break, it delayed it getting started. The screenwriter decided to give the audience a visual. Why are men in robes talking to some old dude in a swimming pool? Wait. That’s the Pope? Doing the dog paddle?
It also lets you weave dialog into the narrative. Gone are the days when you could have pages of description. Dialog is a way to engage an attention-challenged audience. By having one of the speakers look around at their surroundings or having the characters do something while they talk, you kill two birds with one stone.
Also, something I see a lot of newer writers do (and it goes back to when I started writing, even before.) Multiple people speaking in one paragraph. Um… Hey, I have to follow this! Can you break it up a bit? Having Joe talk at the beginning of the paragraph and Judy at the end makes me think Joe is still talking. “But then my paragraphs are short.” So? Makes it more readable, doesn’t it?
Dialog doesn’t have to be hard. As to what your dialog sounds like? That’s a whole ‘nutter topic.