Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Use Dialogue to Show Not Tell  

Dialogue that you are an amateur

"I am talking to you," he said. Then he continued, "Now I'm talking some more."

She replied, "I am responding to what you said."

"We're the only two people present in this scene," he communicated.

"Maybe the readers will get confused about who is speaking," she expounded.

He queried, "Don't the readers know what punctuation marks show?"

"Writers don't think about that," she pointed out.

"Where are we, anyway? What are we doing? Have you moved from your rigid position? How do you feel? I just don't know!" he agonized.

She harangued, "You expect the words we say to do too much. And telling the reader by using synonyms for said and asked is easier shorthand for the writer than using more words to show the reader the scene through description or character emotion through action and body language. Some writers haven't learned the subtleties of technique yet."

"Yes, it's sad," he agreed. "Our tags could do so much more."

You should be laughing by now. But our two speakers have three important points to make.

Allow your punctuation to do its job

First, allow your punctuation to SHOW what it is supposed to, that someone is speaking words aloud and whether those words are arranged into a statement or a question. Do you see an exclamation mark? The character must have raised his or her voice or spoken more forcefully. Does more quoted material appear after a brief non-quoted portion within the same paragraph? The reader knows the character has continued speaking.

Your dialogue tags don't need to make redundant statements regarding what the punctuation shows. Did the second speaker's words occur as a direct response to the first speaker's words? We can see he or she replied. "Yes" = agreement.

Who Said That? Dialogue Tags That Work 

A dialogue tag is the narrative information that labels a line of dialogue, applying the words to the speaker, usually within the same sentence. "He said" is an example of a basic dialogue tag.

In some situations, the reader will not need dialogue tags to know who is speaking. The above dialogue is one example, where we only have two characters speaking to each other. Proper paragraphing will show the reader when the speaker has switched. Once readers have been oriented to who starts the dialogue, they don't need a tag every time someone opens and shuts his or her mouth.

Even with two speakers, giving the reader a clue every third paragraph of dialogue to stay oriented is still good to do, especially with loquacious speakers, but writers have alternatives.

The second thing our speakers are showing us is "talking head syndrome," where characters talk and talk but the reader has nothing to visualize. One of the best writing instructors I ever had, Margie Lawson*, taught me about "action tags." What this means is you use the character's physical action to show the reader what the character is doing while saying this dialogue, which can reveal attitude and emotion as well as giving the reader something to picture.

What do the man and woman above look like? Where are they? What is their activity? Readers have no idea the way the dialogue is written.

When you have more than two speakers present in the scene, you will need to pay more careful attention to labeling each paragraph of dialogue to keep readers oriented, but keeping the "she said" and "he asked" to a minimum in favor of action and body language markers is preferable.

KISS: Keep it Simple, Stupid 

The third major point my two speakers are making is that synonyms for "said" and "asked" are excessive and rarely helpful to readers.

The words "said" and "asked" are invisible to readers. They're short and expected, allowing the reader's eyes to glide past, picking up the information about who spoke while not causing the brain to pause in the visualization of the scene.

Your goal as a writer should be to convey mental pictures of the action and emotion, not wow readers with your fantabulous vocabulary. Using tag words such as replied, conveyed, expounded, articulated, retorted, etc. can annoy readers rather than help the story move forward. Truly, using too many synonyms for "said" can make a writer look amateur.

Don't write like a newbie: allow your punctuation to show dialogue, use "said" or "asked" most (and only when strictly necessary), and use actions and body language between quotes to show what speakers are doing during the dialogue to express emotion.

 *link to Margie Lawson's teaching website:
Originally published on 2013. Revised 4/16/2019; can’t find anymore (I thought nothing disappears on the internet?), so I have republished on my own blog 3/18/2020