Self editing 4 fiction #5 ~ Dialogue Mechanics





This brief  article is a basic introduction to the art of getting the best from your dialogue.


It will be followed by part II “The Gift of the Gab” where we explore effective techniques in far more detail.






A common habit among new authors is adding superfluous explanation when the characters say their piece:

“I can’t believe you’re late again, Charlotte – and you gave the very same excuse last Monday,” Lance said in exasperation.

Lance’s exasperation should be apparent in the narrative – if not, then that is where you should apply your self-editing.

Adverb abuse is often employed to explain the character’s emotion – usually it is sufficient to simply remove the offending adverb if the dialogue speaks for itself:

“The truth is, I hate your guts and never want to see or hear from you again,” Charlotte said [angrily] [cruelly] [truthfully] [vehemently] [harshly].

The same rule applies: the preceding narrative should have set the scene adequately to render such explanations redundant. If not, then that is where enhancements should be made.


The “S” word:

A review by Newgate Callender in the New York Times Book Review:

‘…Mr. [Robert] Ludlum has other peculiarities. For example, he hates the “he said” locution. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom “say” anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology: “I repeat,” repeated Alex.
The book may sell in the billions, but it's still junk…’

It’s common for new writers to try to avoid the “said” locution, but the fact is, “said” is almost invisible, like a punctuation mark in effect, which the reader doesn’t really read. So, regardless of what your “creative” writing mentor taught you, learn to love and live with “said”. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and there are occasions where an alternative to “said” will add something – but if you regard these alternatives as we regard the exclamation mark (use them sparingly, for effect) then the reader will have a smooth experience and not be conscious of your trying too hard to avoid using “said”.

“Don’t be such a tease, Charlotte – where the hell is it? And how come you’re so in the know, my girl?”

“Loose lips sink ships,” she teased. “Anyway, you’re ice cold at the moment.”


It's generally advisable to avoid impossible speaker attributions, such as where characters smile and grimace and laugh and chuckle words:

“Yes, I knew the answer all along. I was just playing with your head,” he grinned.

Have you ever tried “grinning” words? Go ahead, give it a go if you can’t see the reasoning behind discarding such impossibilities. Of course, every rule has an exception and some contemporary novel voices use this kind of style... *sparingly*. Better not to have characters smiling/laughing words, etc., too often.


Trimming speaker attributions:

Of course, a string of “he said, she said” attributes can be clunky and unnecessary; often, we can remove some of them if it’s obvious who is speaking – or replace them with a “beat” – a beat is a small piece of action, usually involving a character:

Charlotte crinkled her nose. “Now, I’m not eating that. I don’t care if it is soul food.”

We can also identify who is speaking if they address the other character (in a two person dialogue scene)

 “It’s not like I was actually asking you to, Charlotte.”

but this quickly gets old and should be kept to a minimum – ask yourself, when talking to your associates in real life, how often do you actually use their name?

General rules:

Nowadays, except perhaps for children’s books, the locution order is “Carmen said” not “said Carmen” – in other words, “she said” not “said she” and consistency is advised, though there are exceptions (as always) where reversing the locution order helps with the flow and comprehension:

“I have a suggestion,” the man standing in the shadows near the arched doorway at the far end of the hall said.

Better that we attach the locution tag early (more about this next time) for the sake of brevity:

“I have a suggestion,” said the man standing in the shadows near the arched doorway at the far end of the hall.

Dialogue intervention (when someone interrupts) should have an un-spaced en or em dash, which is what the reader is accustomed to:

“I think it’s best for everyone if–”

“Who cares what you think?” Lance said.


Trailing off speech is represented by an ellipsis (…) which is better un-spaced so it can’t end up stranded on a new line in (text flow) ePub:

“I know I put the damn thing somewhere nearby – now, let me think…”

A new paragraph should be used per new speaker, of course.

~ ~ ~

Next up, we explore further into the tricks of the dialogue trade in #6 The Gift of the Gab, where we will be expanding on the above, adding sophistication and exploring the smoke and mirrors we should employ.

Next up: Gift of the Gab

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5 comments:

  1. Terrific refresher course. I needed a boot to the rear and now I'll go back and check my work.

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    Replies
    1. Glad it helped P.M.!

      Yes we all need these little prompts when editing so we can fix our eye on the ball - it all seems so obvious but when the muse is glowing and the ink is flowing it pays to put these refinements on hold and keep writing...

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  2. I agree with you about the simplicity of "said," and I like your notion that it's invisible like a punctuation mark. I usually find other 'speaking verbs' intrusive. I find it odd that they can be so prominent in popular fiction (such as, I gather, Mr. Ludlum).

    In fact, this whole piece resonates. Using a dash to denote interruption is great- that hadn't occurred to me. I will use it now. And an ellipsis for trailing off... also makes sense. Looking forward to tomorrow's read.

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    Replies
    1. A slight problem with using an em/en dash followed by speech marks is that Word often places the speech mark backwards (with curly quote marks) and so to get around this we place the closing speech mark first, and then backspace behind it to insert the en/em dash.

      Thanks again for your useful input!

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  3. It is a very nice problem to solve your free punctuation checker. It is a great to read this post and come to know it is a best one blog.

    ReplyDelete