Fun with Dialog

>> Thursday, September 9, 2010

Nathan Bransford wrote a very fine post on the elements of good dialog and I encourage everyone to read it. As a dialog aficionado, I can fully endorse all of his main points. In fact, I was quite pleased - I feel I write dialog like that (though, of course, I could be deluded.)

The one place I differ with Mr. Bransford (and many others) is in the use of verbs more descriptive than "said" or other descriptive phrases. I always have. I've been hearing this "rule" for some time, but I just won't do it.

The "no-saidism" camp's position is that people don't read so-and-so said anyway so putting something else in the dialog tag doesn't buy anything. What's more, it can be disruptive if you overdo it. I absolutely agree with the last part of this (and personally suspect that's the real reason why this "rule" was instituted - more about that later).

Yet I am not of this camp. There are a number of reasons for this.

One is that I DO read the saids. I note when the tags use said or use something else, andI have (frequently) become bored or found the dialog go stale because all that's going on is talking. And I should warn the unwary that I'm a very dialog heavy girl.

Another is that I learned to write by studying the authors I liked best. And, as I have discovered about a number of "rules" many consider sacred, those authors tend to use language descriptively to support the actual dialog, much like I try to do myself. Sometimes creative use of "saidisms" not only adds color and drama, but also humor and charm. Georgette Heyer's clever use of "saidisms" provide some of her most memorable and hilarious moments.

In my opinion, dialog needs something besides the words themselves. Oh, I know, the dialog itself should do all the talking except . . . in real life, it doesn't. In real life, body language is a bigger part of communication than the words are (as my non-talking son proves daily). That's why plays aren't performed by actors standing in place on a stage, speaking monotonically. Except, with a book, we have to replace the actors, the movement, the inflection, the nuances with words. If we forgo: shouted/muttered/breathed/demanded/scoffed/snarled/moaned/gasped/hissed/bellowed/mused/chuckled/whispered/shrieked/tittered/etc. you have to express all that another way, probably using far more words. Or you can skip it and all those nuances, those distinctions will be lost.

So, if it's so good, why is there such a movement against it?

Well, because, if done clumsily, it's extremely distracting. Even the best actual dialog can get clunky and bogged down if not belied with descriptors that are nearly right but not quite. Or worse, so dramatic and overblown that they become laughable even when they shouldn't be.

Know you're language, know your nuances, don't get carried away . . . otherwise you might just want to stick with said after all.


  • Jeff King

    Good point.

  • The Mother

    There are as many styles as there are writers. Dogmatic proclamations are almost always wrong.

  • Stephanie Barr

    The Mother, I tend to feel that way about most "rules" I hear other wannabe writers spout. Some I follow because they work for me, because they fit with the kind of writing I do.

    Some I sort of follow if it works for the story and discard as soon as it gets in the way.

    And some I laugh at because, damn it, that's not the way I roll.

  • Project Savior

    I feel ANY overused repetition is distracting. So a whole chapter of blank said, other blank said, gets grating. On the other extreme I started writing in the 80s when the movement went the other way and characters were supposed to get a full aerobic work-out while talking. It has to be a balance between the two extremes.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Agreed. Since I frequently have "ensemble" casts where conversation might be between three or more individuals, I have to be extra careful to make the speaker clear, not let it get too static and yet not go overboard.

  • Shakespeare

    I tend not to say any real verb describing the way the dialogue is delivered. I'm pretty action-oriented, so I show what the character is doing while the lines are delivered. Perhaps it's my theatrical background, where action usually accompanies a speaking line (and those not speaking do not move, for their movement distracts the audience from the character who "has the stage" (it's called upstaging, and bad actors do it b/c they can't bear not to be the center of attention).

    I have difficulty imagining a scene when the characters stand around and talk for pages, but don't seem to go anywhere (or even gesture). Makes me think of the Indy films when five guys sit around a coffee table talking for three straight hours, without even getting up for a snack or anything. BORING!

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