Tag Archives: dialogue tags

Ten-dollar words #amwriting

Words with few alternatives become problems for me, as in certain circumstances they can become repetitive. For that reason, I have the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus on my desk, and I refer to it regularly. I have found it saves time to use the hard copy book rather than the internet because I am not so easily distracted and led down rabbit trails.

But this leads me to the problem of using words that are jarring and obscure.

The important thing is to remember the audience you are writing for. If you are writing for a YA (Young Adult) audience, remember their reading level. They are just embarking on the reading journey, so don’t use words that my editor refers to as “ten-dollar words.”

Quote from Blogging.com: What is a Ten-Dollar Word? A ten-dollar word is a longer word that is used in place of a smaller and more well-known word. The origin of ten-dollar words dates back to the early 19th century when writers and speakers would use highfalutin words to inflate their appearance and seem smarter than the more average man. Words like these serve a very important purpose; they make you seem smarter than you actually are. One profession that’s very intelligent with their use of these words is the legal profession.

These words will stop the eye of the newer reader, who must set the book down, get the dictionary, and then look the word up. Or they will simply set the book down and not return to it.

The reason new readers often don’t like Literary Fiction is that they don’t understand many of the words and feel “talked down to.” Literary Fiction is work written for the experienced reader with a wide vocabulary. Children’s books and Middle Grade and Young Adult novels are the training grounds for readers, enabling them to gradually widen their vocabulary without their realizing it.

One of the worst places to get creative word-wise is with dialogue tags because it becomes telling rather than showing. Your punctuation and the physical action should convey the emotions. Some tags that are jarring and unnecessary are:

  • Ejaculated
  • Exclaimed
  • Moaned

I’ve mentioned before that I prefer simple attributions such as said, replied, and answered because they are not as likely to stop the reader’s eye.

Something authors must consider: People don’t snort, smirk, smile, or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible.

They can say it with a smile, but the smile is a facial expression and cannot speak.

This means that we add gestures and actions to the conversation to show the emotions, making it meaningful.  Otherwise, stick with a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Conversely, don’t make the mistake of getting rid of attributions entirely because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.

Where you place the speech tags in a sentence is important. Dialogue tags, or attributions (said, replied) can come before the dialogue if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To make them less noticeable put them in the middle or at the end of sentences. In my own work, I want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out.

However, when more than two people are involved in a conversation, I move the dialogue tags further to the front, so the reader isn’t left wondering who is speaking.

You can skip using dialogue tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but

  • not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and
  • not for more than a few exchanges.

Authors must create a balanced narrative.

Readers want to be able to track who is saying what, and don’t like being confused. They like being challenged, but don’t want to have stop and look more than one or two words up. They don’t want to be jarred out of the book by ten-dollar words. And finally, they don’t want to be told a story. They want to see it happen.


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#amwriting: avoiding #nanowrimo pitfall number 1


NaNo-2015-ML-Badge-Large-SquareOne thing we authors often do is forget to use contractions in dialogue. If you ever plan on publishing that manuscript, DON’T FALL INTO THAT TRAP!

In some ways, this habit is fostered by participating in NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Word count is king, and new authors are sometimes advised not to use contractions to get the all-important word count of 1667 words per day.

I don’t recommend that to the Wrimos in my region because I want their manuscripts to be worth reading, and crawling through a manuscript and inserting contractions in the second and third draft are daunting tasks, even with a sharp-eyed editor helping to spot them.

Dialogue that is too formal is awkward and unnatural to the reader.

“I shall not be attending the party. I have a previous engagement to go whale-watching.”

That’s a whole lot of awkward.

long_live_dead_languages_latin_poster-r90bf04eb9e534fd48a8e4149dadac2aa_vhzd_8byvr_512

………………Long Live Dead Languages……………

While I might say something like that in a joking fashion to my sister or to a friend, in reality (and if I was writing dialogue) I would use contractions. I would also use what I personally think of as common phrasing. Fact–unless I work hard to change it, my written dialogue sounds like a Pacific Northwesterner, because that is who I am.

“Sorry, I can’t go to the party. I’m going whale-watching that day.”

When it comes to dialogue, your characters need to speak in expected ways. Remember, the reader’s eye is the “ear” through which they hear the dialogue. Nothing should stop the eye from moving on to the next sentence.

Feel free to break the rules of grammar if your character shows a blatant disregard for what’s correct. If on the first draft he wants to say, “I seen that movie last week. It were rubbish,” let him, at least on your first draft. You can tone it down on the second draft.  This is a way to show you, the author, the description of your characters. On the second draft, have him say, “I seen it last week–it was rubbish.” It still gets the point across, but doesn’t stop the reader’s eye.

However, in regard to a main character, or a prominent secondary character, it’s usually best to avoid trying to convey accent by altering spelling. It’s difficult and tiresome to read an author’s attempt to convey a cockney or an Irish accent, so use colloquialisms and speech patterns instead.

Having said that, there are times when a slight accent is appropriate. If the character is making a MINOR appearance, using an accent and colloquialisms will give the reader feeling that they know that character, without resorting to an info dump.

DialogueFancy synonyms for ‘said’ are usually unnecessary and distracting. And remember, people do not smile, snort or smirk dialogue. In fact, it is often best to do away with dialogue tags altogether, once you have established who is speaking though the visual cues

Sometimes, instead of using dialogue tags, miss a few “beats.” In script-writing, beats are little bits of physical action inserted into dialogue: John put the book down and looked out the window. Sarah turned and walked to the door. Used sparingly, they serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description. They are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters.

crest-bda7b7a6e1b57bb9fb8ce9772b8faafbBeats are an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are fluttering their eyelashes, gazing into the distance or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.

And finally, don’t get too creative with dialogue tags. Stick to ‘John said.’  Unless you absolutely need a John screamed or a Elizabeth uttered or a Joan retorted (which you pretty much never do) just say it and let the reader’s imagination do the rest.

 

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Plug in to The Matrix

 

the Matrix PosterNovels have layers. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than the plot details. It’s the big meaning, and often it’s a moral meaning. Love, honor, family, and revenge are all some common, underlying themes.

I think of the scenes in my books as if they were scenes in a movie. Each conversation is a scene.

Sometimes, we find ourselves in Outer Mongolia as we wrangle our words. Our mind is off chasing squirrels, and our fingers are madly keying dialogue. It happens, and then we find ourselves writing paragraphs of discussion regarding the vase on the kitchen table. Why are we discussing this vase?  If there is a reason that will emerge later, keep it. If it is just idle fluff, lose it.

I actually have a scene in one of my forthcoming books where the characters do just that. They are discussing a vase that was made by a child, but the conversation is not important for the sake of the vase, nor is it really about that object. It is there to expose how important an absent person is to one of the speakers, and the brief interaction between the two speakers endears to the reader one of the characters who will later meet a sad end. The underlying themes of this book are brotherhood, family, romantic love, honor, duty. The obvious theme is the successful resolution of a quest. The core plot device around which the story evolves is an ongoing War of the Gods, and the world in which the tale is set in is their battleground, offering all sorts of opportunities for mayhem.

Consider the first scene of one of my favorite movies of all time, The Matrix. This movie has a lot of action, but it has a lot of dialogue also, and that dialogue advances the plot and never loses the theme of the story.

Quotes from the matrix

The conversation concerns a drug deal, but the underlying theme is never lost. The key words are in the first line, written on the computer, The Matrix has you, the third line, follow the white rabbit, and in that very last line, telling Neo to unplug. The Matrix is all about waking up, about what reality is, and about Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. It is about escaping that program. The conversations that happen in the course of the film all advance that theme, even the minor interactions, from the first conversation to the last.

The Arc of the StoryWe must approach conversations in our novels as if they were scenes in a movie. In a good movie, we don’t notice it, but there is an arc. In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change. It ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story. The end of a narrative arc is the denouement, the final resolution. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through.

If we don’t keep the arc of the story moving with each scene, we will lose our reader, and to that end, each conversation must reflect the underlying themes of the story without beating the reader over the head with it. As in real life, some of the people know more than others, and to advance the plot and the theme, small clues must come out over the course of each scene, each scene building to the finale.

I876MilanoDuomo‘ve said this before, but we must build the overall arc of the story from scenes, each of which is a small arc, in the same way a gothic cathedral is constructed of many arches that all build toward the top.  The underlying arches strengthen the overall construction. Without arches, the cathedral wouldn’t remain standing for very long. The novel is a cathedral and your scenes are the arches that hold it up. The conversations that form those scenes are miniature arches, each with a beginning, a high point, and a resolution.

 

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The Great Dialogue Debate

My Coffee Cup © cjjasp 2013We meet our friends on the street, or in a bar or a coffee shop and we talk talk talk.  And so do our characters.  Sometimes those wild and wacky imaginary friends of ours just won’t be quiet, and it drives us nuts. Other times they behave like a thirteen-year-old forced to go on the old family vacation,  sitting in stony silence staring at her signal-less phone, refusing to participate with those people who claim to be her parents and who dragged her off to the wilderness for something called ‘family time.’

Eww.

But when they DO choose to participate in the conversation, how do we make them sound natural? There is a lot of argument in writers forums on this subject, but I go from the point of view of the reader. What is easiest for the reader to follow?

Take a good long look at the works of established writers whose dialogue is crafted in such a way that you, as the the reader, didn’t feel like you were reading it: you felt like you were living it. Did they get too fancy, and uber creative?

No, they kept it simple, and showed you the conversation.

First off–my pet peeve: people do not smile, snort, chuckle, or smirk dialogue. They don’t giggle it either, but they DO say it, they reply it, and many times they ask it. As long as you mainly stick to said, replied, answered, and asked, your reader won’t even notice the attributions are there. If you are writing genre-fiction, there is no need to get creative with your attributions, or ‘dialogue tags’ as we call them: stick to ‘John said’ (not said John, which sounds too old-fashioned these days.) Unless you absolutely need a John screamed or a Sarah uttered or a Paula retorted (which you pretty much never do) just say it and let the reader do the rest. Fancy synonyms for ‘said’ are usually unnecessary and distracting.

You can skip using dialog tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and not for more than a few exchanges. Readers want to be able to track who is saying what.

Sometimes it’s okay to miss a few beats. Beats are what screen-writers call the little bits of physical action that is inserted into dialogue:

People do not snort dialogueBack in the office with the door shut tight, Junior and Pap plotted the special hunting trip for the nice tabloid man. Junior unbraided his hair and pulled it back into his customary long ponytail. Off came the blanket, which he told Pap smelled musty, and the headband. “Tell Johnny thanks for the loan of his buckskins,” he said as he stripped them off, stuffed them into a gym bag, and then pulled on a pair of slacks. “I’ll need them tomorrow for this picnic. That idiot wanted to leave at dawn! I told him after breakfast, so what do you think—about ten o’clock? I usually don’t go to bed until dawn.”

Beats or actions serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description.

Small actions showing the mood of a character are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are fluttering their eyelashes, gazing into the distance or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.

This means that when we add gestures and actions to the conversation we want it to be meaningful,.  Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied. This is why we don’t want to make the mistake of getting rid of attributions entirely—because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.

verbal tic memeBut what about exclamations and verbal tics?

We frequently speak this way  in real life, but we don’t want it in our work so I recommend you avoid using them. When a character overuses exclamations, it is exhausting for the reader to wade through paragraphs peppered with instance after instance of “Ahhhh…” “Ugh!” “Yuck!”  “Blech!”

For example, have you ever met a person who drones on with a long “A-a-and a-a-ahhhhhhhhh….” holding conversations hostage with meaningless syllables? These are ‘thinking syllables.’ This is what is known as a ‘verbal tic’ and can be such an ingrained habit the guilty party is unaware they are doing it. They’re often quite hurt if you try to hurry them along.

It’s a habit that we don’t enjoy in a conversation, and don’t want to read in novel, so I recommend you don’t begin more than a few sentences with thinking syllables like  “Ahh…” or “Hmmm….”

These are difficult speech behaviors to convey, because they are supremely annoying in real life and are excruciating to read in a book. As a reader, I’ve come to feel your best bet when dealing with verbal tics is to give a brief instance of their speech pattern and after that, if it is important, mention occasionally the way their habits annoy other characters.

What about accents? Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, says “When writing for a character with an accent, it is tempting to render the character’s speech phonetically using nonstandard spellings. However, this practice is risky and should be avoided, unless you specifically want to emphasize how a character speaks. First, there’s the question of how accurate to be. The more accurate the phonetic spelling, the more frustrating it will be to read.”  

Don’t overdo spelling them out.  You have no idea how hard it is to wade through that:

490px-Henry_Singleton_The_Ale-House_Door_c._1790“Me lempsor’ ‘urt an’ oi’m feelin’ dead knackered. Oi nade ter kip for a while.”

Translation: “My feet hurt and I’m feeling dead tired. I need to sit and rest a while.”  I think you could get away with just using knackered and kip to convey the general idea, and not lose the reader’s interest. If you choose to replace ‘to’ with ‘ter’ for a specific character, be sure to do it consistently and consider leaving it at that.

I have walk-on characters who are minotaurs, and the physical transformation from man to minotaur affects their ability to speak, some more than others. They also come from a different world. This posed a dilemma for me. Because the lower ranked minotaur soldiers make only brief appearances, I can get away with a bit more of a dialect or a speech impediment. The higher ranking ones made it through the remaking with more of their wit and abilities intact, and therefore speak more clearly. I mention they have an accent and leave it at that.

More and more, I am leaning away from writing heavy accents into my dialogue. I recommend going light and limiting the use of misspellings, bad grammar, and vulgar accents especially if you are trying to point out that the character is uneducated or from a rural background.  Use only a few well-chosen words to convey the idea of the accent and use them in a consistent manner for that character in such a way that it isn’t incomprehensible. It’s very easy to go over the top with it, and then the character becomes a parody, a cartoon of a person, instead of someone who feels real.

This winds up my rant on annoying habits we don’t want to inject into our dialogue. Accents, dialects, verbal tics–these are things we need to convey, but we must be mindful of our readers’ supply of patience. Show a little, and let the reader’s imagination do the rest.

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