Thursday, August 30, 2012

Dialogue Tag -You're It!

He Said, She Said
(and why they shouldn't hiss)

As writers, we're apt to become hypersensitive to repetition. "He jammed his foot on the accelerator and accelerated." And we're quite likely to go through and change words to avoid this unfortunate chiming effect.

Rightly so. However, certain words are what I have heard called "furniture" in sentences. They don't attract the eye and can be repeated without much fuss and feathers, and hardly any reader would notice.

Did the three "ands" bother you just then?

Unfortunately, writers sometimes get allergic to the word said. We have to use it all the time in dialogue tags - "he said" and "she said" and so on.

You can tell when a writer has become hyper-aware. That's when you get sentences like:

"You can't be serious!" he exploded.

"But I am," she hissed.

"Well, that just disgusts me," he riposted.

The cure is much worse than the disease. An occasional use of an odd word for effect is fine, but if someone hisses, for heaven's sake use sibilants in the dialogue: "She's so sweet," Lola hissed.

Another tip: don't use a tag for dialogue unless it's a verb that indicates a sound. Not "I think you're teasing," he smiled. Instead: "I think you're teasing," he said with a smile.

Go easy on them, though. "I hate you," she snarled. Little bit of that goes a long way.

Other alternates are simpler than you think. If there are only two speakers, you can sometimes just alternate lines of dialogue for a stretch, but be careful. In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway an early editor made a false line break in dialogue, which resulted in a radical change of attitude in the two waiters holding the discussion. Wasn't caught for fifty years.

Otherwise, here's a neat solution that also supplies narrative drive: couple dialogue to some action the speaker is performing:

Dale jerked his head around to stare at the sky. "What's that?"

Again, don't overdo it, but action/dialogue helps the reader imagine the scene and see the stage business your characters are performing.

And when you have to, don't hesitate to fall back on "said." And don't trip over the furniture words.

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