Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Dialogue: Let's be real. Part II

I don't mean to harp, but I have more to say about dialogue, and a few of you seemed to like my post on the subject before, so by George I'm gonna say it.

Remember when I said that readers are smart? Readers can figure it out? It's true, I promise. I read way too many things where the author is trying desperately to make absolutely sure the reader knows what's going on. While I'm sure the reader appreciates the thought, it's often not necessary. Specifically, I mean overuse of dialogue tags and names.

Dialogue tags: some authors want to have a "he said," "she said" after every single thing a character says. Obviously, these tags are necessary sometimes (even lots of times). But if you've started a conversation with your characters, and the words are between quotation marks, we know they've said it. I promise.
"I want to get lunch," Jane said.
"Okay. Where do you want to eat?" David asked.
"Anywhere," she responded.
"How about that new Italian place?" he suggested.
"Sounds good," she agreed.
After we've established that Jane and David are talking (which may have happened before this snippet of conversation--hey, we have no idea what they were doing before I started typing) we really don't need that many tags. The last three lines could easily lose their tags entirely, and the conversation loses nothing.

An instance where frequent dialogue tags are helpful is when there are more than two people talking. Obviously, then we need to know how the conversation is progressing. But even then, you can be creative. Instead of an actual dialogue tag, just move the focus to the character who's speaking.
"I've made some changes," David began, "and I think it should work. But--"
"Can you get it to him tomorrow?" Jared interrupted.
"Then do it."
Jane paced the room, her hands twitching slightly. "But what if he won't sign?"
Thrusting the papers away from him, David sighed and pressed his hands against his eyes. "Then we start from the beginning."
Jared groaned. "Not again!"
There are seven separate instances of people speaking in that conversation, but I only used two actual dialogue tags. And I think it's pretty obvious who's talking throughout.

Names: this one's pretty obvious, I think. But I still see people get hung up on it. Direct conversation by content and context, not by telling us exactly whom the character is addressing. What I mean is, above, David didn't have to say "then we start from the beginning, Jane" for us to know he was answering her. Generally, people only use each other's names when they're trying to get their attention or for emphasis. So if David is really fed up with Jane and Jared's harping by now, and thinks the answer should be obvious, he could say "then we start from the beginning, Jane." But he doesn't need to. I've seen more conversations than I expected to that go something like this:
"What should we do about Jared, Jane?"
"I don't know, David, what do you think?"
"It's up to you, Jane."
Tiring is really the only way to describe it.

I'm not saying you should be Hemingway or anything, here. Dialogue tags and names are good (as it turns out). But like any writing tool, just be careful about how and how often you use them. Yes, we need to know who's talking to whom. But not in every sentence.

Hope this helps and good luck!

1 comment:

lancelot said...

nice. I like that. I've been wondering about the whole "the reader is just as smart as you are" thing. I really think people don't believe they are.