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The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Will Greenway
Return to Writing Dynamic Dialogue · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
This is usually because the writer is aware of repeats in dialogue attribution, so they try to compensate by cutting away tags -- resulting in lots of "floating" quotes. Another way beginners will compensate is with "swifties" and a myriad of variations and synonyms for the word "said". Swifties are adverbial modifiers for attributions, such as he said hotly, she said coolly, he said quickly, she said tartly, etc. Used in moderation these aren't so bad, but when we start seeing several per page their effect becomes both diluted and annoying. More importantly, while they might describe how something is spoken -- they are more tell than show.
'Said" synonyms are like swifties, they're okay in moderation (one, maybe two per page). When every attribution is he snarled, she snapped, he interjected, she declared, he asserted, she affirmed, he announced, however, this displays a loose technique that shows beginner! There are better and more effective ways to handle dialogue and character interaction.
"There's Nothing Wrong with 'Said'," he said.
Let's start with one little rule to keep in mind:
The word "said" is perfectly okay. It's a nice, very innocuous word. It's a word that most people barely even register as their eye passes over it. That's a good thing. The less noticed the better. If some other context doesn't already identify the speaker, go ahead and use "he said" or "she said" to identify who is doing the talking. It's all right -- really.
Adding Dynamic Elements
The real world is dynamic: rarely is it devoid of sound or sensation. Your world should be the same way. Think about the setting where the scene is taking place. If it's a private scene, in a quiet place, any environmental cue will work: crickets chirping outside, a cold draft of air causing the drapes to flutter, some smell or anything else that heightens our sense of place. The slats of the bed can creak. Floorboards can groan, or bricks can moan as the building settles...
If you were there, what sounds, smells, tastes, visuals and feelings would you note? Make a list of these sensory details, then consider which of them your viewpoint character might note. Choose this list carefully, because the details they notice will characterize them. Keep this list on hand for when you start polishing the finished scene; it will become important.
Next, set the stage. You are the director. In the movies, rarely is a scene shot straight on. The camera is usually at an angle or pans around the characters. As a writer, you can simulate these dynamics.
You can also do something else they do in Hollywood: Add props. Rarely are characters alone in a scene without a phone, a knife, something. People talk with their hands and bodies as much or more than their mouths. When a warrior reaches down and grips his sword whiteknuckled while glaring at someone, he/she has communicated. Not a word has been said, but a message has been sent. This kind of indirection is an extremely valuable tool for effective and stylish storytelling.
Make props a part of the scene. Use them. Props can be fiddled with, gestured with, massaged, tapped, crunched -- all putting an otherwise static character in motion. Motion is good. Characters should never sit still unless the stillness -- such as "freezing" in surprise -- is a mechanism in itself.
Next, tag the characters themselves. Clothing, jewelry, hair, scars -- anything that sets that character off from others is good. These tags help us not only to visualize the person, but also to identify them. A simple example: one female character in a group is always portrayed as wearing bells. It's dark in a room and the main character cannot see. He can hear, though; he hears bells that jingle to a stop nearby and he hears a feminine voice. We don't have to identify the speaker now. We might add -- "a familiar feminine voice said from on his right." This is especially good, because we're inviting the reader to fill in the rest.
Provide Interesting Interactions
With our scene preparations taken care of, it's time to start looking at good methods for making the character interactions interesting and dynamic. Never have two characters simply discuss something -- always break it up somehow. Another character can interrupt; sounds can cause the characters to look up. Do whatever you can to vary the rhythm of the interchanges. Another helpful hint is to give characters noticeably different speech patterns. It doesn't take much. One character may use a particular curse, or always speak in third person. Patterns can be used simulate dialect without using apostrophes all the time. Even something as simple as a character always putting the verb before the noun can be used, creating sentences like: "Go we to the mountain", "leave us now", "Going away am I". Simplistic -- yes. Simple is good. The more easily identifiable a pattern, the less you will have to attribute it.
Here are some ways to make your characters' interactions more interesting, more alive:
These are all tools for your tool box. They are energy you can use to pump into the scene. The more visual and interesting the details, the more spark they will put into the interactions you depict. When you are creating the cast for your book or story, giving them traits that can be exploited in this fashion will provide a bounty of visual and sensory "beats" that will anchor the reader.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
First published in 1983, Will Greenway started his creative career wanting to draw and script comics. Aside from writing and art, Will is a self-taught programmer, PC technician, and network troubleshooter. He enjoys skiing, racquetball, Frisbee golf, and is steadfast supporter of role-playing games. He currently works as systems and software engineer for the San Diego command of Space and Naval Warfare Systems. To date, he has completed fifteen novels, more than a dozen short stories, and numerous articles on writing. He resides in the Bonita suburb of south San Diego with his wife, a Linux server, a closet full of comics, and around 200 anime DVDs. Greenway's "Ring Realms" novels, Reality's Plaything and A Knot in Time, are available from Writers Exchange. Visit his website at http://www.ringrealms.com/rrmainindex.php.