5 Tips on Dialogue: Part Two

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EDIT: If you like this journal entry, check out The Sarcastic Guide to Writing ebook www.amazon.com/The-Sarcastic-G… for exclusive content on world-building, character, and dialogue!

Not sure when the next update is; I'm probably going to be starting another novel here soon.

1.  Said is king. Meyer!  You little minx; thank you for providing me with a perfect reason why Said Bookisms suck so bad! reasoningwithvampires.tumblr.c… Replacing said with anything should be done with hesitation.  Dialogue stands on its own.  Give your readers credit: we really can understand how something is being said by the dialogue alone.   When characters whine, moan, sniff, or do anything with an adverb, their dialogue probably needs punching up.  Sometimes it's unavoidable, but do try not to let yourself fall off the slippery slope.  The best dialogue stands by itself.  We understand that sometimes it can't always happen that way.  Really, we do.  But the classy thing to do is not to call attention to it.  We don't' want to see how many different ways you came up with to tell us the same thing as "said." Characters are allowed to scream and sob and expostulate (wait, no, not that last one, ever) but they should do so sparingly.  As sparingly as they curse, if not more.  I know I've said this before, but the human eye skips over the word "said" while reading; all we really look for is who is speaking.  But a different word will cause our eye to snag, and when that happens, you risk breaking us out of the world.  Any critique partner worth their salt will fuss you out for that.  A reader will jeer gleefully at you on Amazon.  Like I do to Cassandra Clare.

2. Respect the punctuation, dammit! How many times have you seen someone type a question and then have the dialogue tag say "she asked"?  As if the question mark at the end of the sentence meant nothing.  Even better is sentences like '  "Oh, no!" she exclaimed' , because, you know, that exclamation point didn't get the exclaiming part across.  And let's not forget italics and all caps, and we still get stuff like "Mommy!" he screamed", "CRAP!" she cried", and so on. Punctuation is one of the most abused things on the Internet aside from grammar.  More than half the people I see use it don't know how it's supposed to work.  (Or that "it's" with an apostrophe ALWAYS freaking means "it is" and "its" is the possessive one.  My God.  NEVER.)  Considering that a big part of your writing process will at some point involve rewrites and cutting, this is where a lot of the blubber lies.  In unnecessary dialogue disclaimers that let us stupid-ass readers overtly know just how someone is saying that line about their custard.  Never mind that we don't care, and the custard line has merely the thinnest value as a
characterization element.  We're gonna know if it kills us.  Penny Arcade has some amusing things to say about the subject of punctuation, if you don't mind strong language.
www.penny-arcade.com/comic/200…
www.penny-arcade.com/comic/200…
www.penny-arcade.com/comic/200…
www.penny-arcade.com/comic/200…
Don't ever use backslash.  He is a psychopath.

3. If dialogue is not providing characterization, moving the story forward, or providing information: you are doing it wrong. I've heard it said that some people flip open books and look for white space, because big blocks of text are intimidating.  (I suspect these people are not heavy readers in the first place.)  Big blocks of text imply exposition, the tiresome stuff that gives the story context, whereas dialogue implies characterization and dramatic moments.  Therefore, dialogue should be used as much as possible!  Writers who think this end up with "As You Know Bob" dialogue, because they use the tool of dialgue for EVERYTHING.  Exposition, characterization, pacing, stakes, and everything else.  Give it a rest. Dialogue is not your only tool to tell a story.  There are about a thousand others out there.  Dialogue should break up action and action should break up dialogue.  It especially gets tiring when one realizes the characters have been standing around talking for the last twenty pages.  Just talking.  (Thereby elevating the question of why Twilight got so popular to a cosmic mystery.) Especially when the conversation has no bearing or effect on later parts of the story.  Again, those English muffins don't mean anything in a vampire-staking story, and you are gonna have your work cut out for you getting me to believe otherwise.  

4.  I spit on your trite turns of phrase. Man, can people ever stumble over this one.  This is a razor's edge, because if you win you're awesome, if you lose you're a pitiful moron.  This is when characters attempt wit/brevity/attitude through pun or some other turn of phrase, but either use an exhausted cliche', repeat themselves, or regurgitate a line the reader heard on TV a week ago.  You see this a lot in new writers, who are flexing their wings for the first time and borrowing flight tips from people they found funny or cool.  This is also where you see a lot of "forced" dialogue, where things don't arise as a result of the characters interacting, but are woodenly moved in to place by the author to set up a line.  A lot of young writers get overly concerned with their character's status, and like their favorites to "win" at a conversation by verbally pantsing a villain or shutting down the ego of a rival.  Like Superman never had a bad day or something.  Good dialogue feels natural, but it is so, so easy to make it forced.  And your readers will know.  Oh, we will.  I've read enough frothing Amazon reviews to fill a barrel with rabid foam. Because when your characters flip out their shades and pull off a CSI one-liner, what we hear is the author laughing in our heads.  "Puppet show!  Look at you, you stupid!  You're watching a puppet showwwwww!"  This gets even worse when it's a declaration of love, because a serious moment can easily lend itself to absurdity; known as Narm on TvTropes.  A character's wit is only as sharp as that of the writer; your only advantage is that you have days and months to think up of the perfect comeback, instead of that time a bully tripped you and thought up the perfect comeback the next day.  If your or your readers find yourself asking "Who the hell talks like this!?", you are probably in this territory.

5. Watch your word calender.  I recently tripped over Clockwork Angel, in which ol' Clare was so focused on making sure everyone had a British accent, she gave one by accident to a character from New York City.  Because nothing says tosh like Brooklyn, right? Aside from that, any time the characters expressed gratitude, ever, they said "obliged."  "Much obliged."  "I'm obliged."  "I couldn't be more obliged, sir."  While this is not necessarily Clare's fault, but that of her editor (who should have freaking noticed it), it nonetheless shows that Clare was in love with the word.  Or thought that no one else in Victorian England ever used the word "grateful" or "I appreciate the sentiment" or thankee" (that last one for Cockneys.)  If she was that concerned about it, she could've researched the etymology of "thanks" and made it easier on herself.  This kind of dovetails in with the previous rule about make sure your characters use words that they would actually use. It's just that this particular rule applies to words or phrases that have been deemed acceptable for the character being used too much. Just because you like a word doesn't mean it has its place.  Especially the 50-centers, like "extrapolation" or "stentorian" that the average schmo would blink at.  And I don't mean this in description, I mean this in dialogue.  Show me someone who uses one of those words, and I'll show you a highly educated, well-read character.  This goes double for a character qualifier, like a catchphrase or use of the word "dude".  Shove it down our throats enough, and you'll see some vomit all right.  If it becomes painfully obvious that this all the characters are capable of, it reduces their dimensionality.  Even worse is when your characters are constantly repeating themselves or using tired or aggravating turns of phrase (see Rule #4.)  If you are trying for a realistic dialogue cadence from, say, medieval times or Roman times, read the nonfiction from that period.  Yes, Romans and Greeks really wrote stuff down.  Even plays.
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Charanty's avatar
1. Said is king... But not in my country.

I'll give my Russian five cents: in my country there is an unspoken rule - "said" can be used but it should be kept to minimum because it's a) boring b)using lots of it indicate that you have a poor vocabulary c) it doesn't always fit the situation.

Also, what's your opinion on "flowery/purple prose"?
androidgirl's avatar
Hmmm... I may need to rewrite my script on the basis of this alone... I am too attached to dialogue.
bensen-daniel's avatar
Hey-ho.
>>the human eye skips over the word “said” while reading; all we really look for is who is speaking.<<
So true! As a writer, it seems like you are writing "said" every second word, but as a reader, you don't care.

>>“CRAP!” she cried”, and so on. <<
I think people do that because they want to remind the reader who is crying or shouting or whatever. I agree there are better ways.

>> Dialogue should break up action and action should break up dialogue.<<
Applause

>>This is also where you see a lot of “forced” dialogue, where things don’t arise as a result of the characters interacting, but are woodenly moved in to place by the author to set up a line.<<
One very good quote from a friend: "this isn't your character speaking, this is you speaking. Stop doing that."

>> If it becomes painfully obvious that this all the characters are capable of, it reduces their dimensionality.<<
A good example of someone who does it right is John C. Wright in Orphans of Chaos, where characters have diverse vocabularies that are DIFFERENT from each other. Another good example is the TV show Deadwood. I wish I knew how the author/writers did it, but I think reading widely (outside of one genre) and having diverse friends and acquaintances (outside of one clique) is helpful.
Steeljren's avatar
I rarely disagree with your writing journals, but the first paragraph surprised me. In German schools we are always taught, that "said" is about the most boring word for the job. And indeed, many of our authors tend to avoid it. They use no tags where possible and find other words for the rest.
But this certainly matches the abundance of "said" I always notice in American novels.
Droemar's avatar
Ah, that's a good point. I make no claim as to what constitutes good writing in other languages, and it's an interesting point that other cultures might not reject the idea of Said Bookisms.
Cool!
wadifahtook's avatar
My culture also rejects the use of straight "said". Um, the culture of...the eclectic. I think watching the otherwise awesome [link](1988_film) cemented my mind on this one. Even though the consistent use of "said" was used with intent here....it still gets extremely tiresome by the end. I can handle the straight "said" shot in some, shorter and more purposefully simplistically written stories, but if the author can't otherwise throw me an "answered" or "slurred" here and there, my mind starts inserting words for them to liven things up a bit. Granted, I also went to school outside of the US initially.
Everland-Stables's avatar
Which is why my drugs of choice are Kipling and Sayers. Dialog and description balanced perfectly. Though Sayers gets it easy by having the characters make a game of trite phrases!

I've read the mortal instruments trilogy and tripped over the dialog too, mostly the perpetually unfinished sentences and jerky scene transitions. In my own writing, I tend to be dialog heavy and do use too many adverbs, speech tags, etc. I blame a teacher who hated 'said' with a passion, though, and would mark us down every time we used it in school assignments.
Droemar's avatar
I've had a lot of people tell me that their English teachers drilled "use something else besides said!" into them. I guess I kind of remember that, too, but I regarded it as a vocabulary building process, not an iron, unbreakable law.
Weird.
Jaala's avatar
XD y'know, I just though of this, meyer is getting a ton of free lessons on HOW not to write a book by disgruntled readers and writers! So yeah, hopefully she comes up with something readable on the next round!
Ivi942's avatar
I actually get free writing lessons by reading about people criticizing Twilight xD It's very englightening!
Jaala's avatar
K47454k1's avatar
"'"... !"' he exclaimed."

Is syntactically incorrect anyway. It should read:

"'"... [,]"' he exclaimed." (the exclaimed is the necessary part.)
KreepingSpawn's avatar
*is dedicatedly trying to reinsert 'said' into my writing...* ;p
thanks again! :wave:
Lit-Twitter's avatar
Chirp, it's been twittered. [link]

And even Brooklyn folk want to sound British now? D:
Aen-Riv's avatar
And I thought, why Backslash...
Very enlightening :3
Droemar's avatar
He is a vessel for darkness. And blood. So much blood.
androidgirl's avatar
I thought he was a vessel for programming, enabling one to do various and enlightening things like use quotes without ruining the rest of your code.
Aen-Riv's avatar
Come to think of it, he does look slightly malevolent. Especially for vampires.
Furrama's avatar
Punctuation question.

"What are you doing?"
"What are you doing!"
or
"What are you doing!?"

This was never ironed out for me in third grade and I'm never sure what to do when I need exclamation during a question.
Droemar's avatar
I've been told that "!?" isn't acceptable for anything but comics, but I have seen YA books that use it.
You could also use the rare "shouted" or "cried", or use italics.
KreepingSpawn's avatar
what about "What are you doing?!" ;/
Furrama's avatar
So, is it's ok to have a question without a question mark? " Where are your pants!"
Droemar's avatar
Yeah. All the examples you gave I have seen in prose print as some point. It really depends on your editor, who'll suggest an alternative anyway.
SnowRaven-Moonstar's avatar
Ever noticed that in real life sometimes even a look can say more than a whole paragraph of dialogue. The best writers can get that right even through teh simple medium of words. I tend to be more impressed when a writer can convey a whole paragraph through a simple description of gesture or expression than using actual said paragraph. ;)
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