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Dialogue, Part One

This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.

In one way or another, characters communicate with one another. Body language, text, telepathy (if your story features something like that)–all of it is fair game where writing is concerned. Of course, though, the most popular way to have characters chat, argue, or build up and tear down one another is via dialogue.

For many of us, talking is second-nature. We hear someone say something, we react, they react to that, and so on. When it comes to writing that sort of thing down, however–that’s another matter entirely. Dialogue can quickly become clunky, tell-y, and repetitive unless edited with care, which is why this and the next posts will spend some time focusing on tightening up those character conversations.

Today’s post will focus on a few points, all of which are broad brushstroke recommendations (like most writing advice). As usual, I’ll focus on the conventional wisdom, so to speak, but what are rules for if not to be broken?

Don’t Explain Your Dialogue

This is a pretty sweeping suggestion, as it should be. This falls under the general “show, don’t tell” umbrella, which I’ve covered previously here. So what are examples of explanations in dialogue? Let’s check out a few examples.

  • “Immigrants built this country,” Hershel said sincerely.
  • “Do it, Dad,” Carl said, his voice thick with seriousness.
  • “Carl,” Rick screamed.

Gross. Each of these lines is cringe-worthy not only for the explanations tagged on to the end of them, but because of the contexts in which each are said on The Walking Dead. Seriously, the first of these is so forced it feels like it was cut-and-pasted from a scene that got written out early on in production, and the second is… well, if I remember correctly, there would have been no time for Carl to throw those words out there with the amount of time Rick had to work with. And the third, well, that’s just a classic. Had to include it.

So what are the explanations in each of these lines? Respectively they are “sincerely,” “voice thick with seriousness,” and “screamed.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” you might say. “You’re calling an adverb an explanation? And ‘screamed?’ You’re gonna count that as an explanation?”

I am, and let me tell you why.

I’ve seen some dissenting opinions regarding adverbs floating around the Twitterwebs lately, but I am a firm believer that the use adverbs should be minimized whenever possible. I could (and will, at some point) write an entire post on this, so I’ll keep it short for now: adverbs are often crutches or cheap ways to get across points that either 1) should be apparent based on a reader’s understanding of a character and the situation, and 2) can almost always be expressed in a better way, if necessary.

And screamed? This is a tell. You’re telling me Rick screamed.

How can the three lines above be changed to avoid these explanations and tells? Let’s take a look.

  • Hershel laid a hand on Glenn’s shoulder. “Immigrants built this country.”
  • “Do it, Dad.” Carl leaned forward, unflinching.
  • “Carl.” Rick’s voice echoed through the woods.

Hershel places his hand on Glenn’s shoulder? Bam! Sincerity. Carl leans in to show an investment in the moment and he doesn’t flinch? Talk about seriousness! Rick’s voice echoes off the trunks of the trees? He must’ve been hollering.

There’s a word economy argument against the rephrasing of Hershel’s line, but I’d kick that to the curb by saying it paints a more vivid picture and is a demonstration of a show over a tell.

Also, what do you notice missing from the above examples? That’s right, dialogue tags. Let’s get into that in our next section.

Replace Tags With Action Where Possible

I think there’s a natural tendency to toss on a he said/she said after a line of dialogue. In dialogue-heavy scenes, however, filling the page with saids can get repetitive real quick. I think the first instinct a lot of writers have when trying to avoid “said repetition” is to start throwing replacement verbs around. As covered above, though, there are so many instances in which using a replacement verb like screamed or cried or whispered or hollered comes across as a tell.

So what are we as writers to do, then? Let’s look at an example scene below.

“I don’t know, Dad,” Carl said. “Do you really think we should stay?”

“Hard to say,” Rick said. “We’ve got shelter here. Shelter and safety.”

“Maybe it’s better for us to go,” Shane said. “This place gives me the creeps.”

“I don’t know how long we’ll be welcome, anyway,” Lori said. “Let’s just go.”

All right, aside from the fact that this conversation happens 23,943 times (exact count) throughout The Walking Dead as a series (seriously, just swap around character names and you’ll see what I mean), those saids are somehow even more annoying than the conversation itself.

We’ve already established we’re going to avoid verb-swapping to patch things up, so let’s try substituting some actions instead. Throwing in these beats on each line will clarify who the speaker is without having to throw “said” in there at all.

Carl adjusted his hat. “I don’t know, Dad. Do you really think we should stay?”

“Hard to say.” Rick knelt at his son’s side. “We’ve got shelter here. Shelter and safety.”

Shane puffed out his chest. “Maybe it’s better for us to go.” He spat. “This place gives me the creeps.”

Lori looked from Rick to Shane and back again. “I don’t know how long we’ll be welcome, anyway. Let’s just go.”

Hey, look at that. A full conversation between multiple characters that doesn’t make use of “said” even once.

Aside from making use of action where possible, there’s one way to provide even greater balance in our dialogue.

Sometimes Neither Are Necessary

You read that right. In many cases–especially conversations between only two characters–dialogue tags and actions aren’t necessary at all.

That’s not to say you should avoid using character action in your dialogue. On the contrary, doing so can help round out a character and better ground readers in the scene. Sometimes, though, to give readers a better feel for the pace of the conversation, it’s better to let the words speak for themselves. Let’s look at one last example and then explore what makes it work.

Glenn kept his voice low. “Rick.” He waved him over.

Rick sidled his way through the brush, hand on his holster. “What is it?”

Glenn nodded across the way.

Walkers. Of course. Rick chewed at his lip. “I go first. Keep close behind me. We’ll follow the treeline where we can.”

“You sure?”

“Sure as I’ve been about anything.”

“But last time we–“

“We don’t talk about last time.” Rick cringed. Too loud. He’d spoken all too loud.

One walker craned its head their direction, then another. The two of them took off through the thicket.

So how did this read to you? They were whispering, weren’t they? Sure were. And how quickly were they having this back and forth? Pretty quickly right before they took off, right?

But how do we know these things? There’s no indication of how any character speaks after the first line, and at no point does the text clarify that they are speaking quickly.

Context, friends. Context, as always, is key. After the first sentence, clues like sidling, hands on holsters, and other non-verbal clues like nodding and waving let us know they’re keeping the chatting to a minimum, and that something dangerous is afoot. Hence, we as readers hear whispering voices.

The speed of the dialogue is also implied not only through this action, but the format of the dialogue itself. Notice that three lines feature no actions or dialogue tags at all. Are you still able to tell who’s talking? I hope so. With only two characters on the page, they’ll trade off lines every time a new paragraph is started. The lack of actions and tags getting in the way makes for a more brisk read, which complements the manner in which the conversation is being had.

Lesson learned: dialogue, just like everything else with writing, is but one tool in your toolkit. Take advantage of context to frame your characters’ conversations and complement that context with action and tags where necessary. Give your prose balance and room to breathe, and you’ll have written your way into successful dialogue in no time.

That’s all for this week on dialogue, but we’ll be back next week with even more! Have some thoughts or questions of your own on dialogue, feel free to send them my way on Twitter or by email through my contact page.

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