You Donít Say?
by Lori L. Lake
How many times have you read a story or novel and
been struck by the observation that nobody in your own personal
world sounds one bit like the characters you are reading about? Iím
not talking about writing that contains local lingo or work jargon;
I mean something that looks like this:
"Well, hello, Mike."
"Ferd. How are you?" Mike responded.
"I am fine, just fine," said Ferd. "And your
wifeóhow is she getting along?"
"Real well," Mike said smilingly. "The baby is due
in a mere six weeks."
"Isnít that just great. Congratulations to the
happy family," Ferd opined as he shook his head and grinned.
Mike nodded. "We are looking forward to it so
"Iíll bet." Ö
This little exchange is, technically, completely
accurate. This is exactly what I heard at a social function a few
weeks ago. Does that make it good dialogue to use word-for-word in
your story? No. To be honest, not only is this dialogue badly
written, but itís boring as hell.
Writing dialogue is tricky because what is spoken in
books isnít the way people converse in real life. For one thing,
people donít carry on sequential conversations. They interrupt, talk
over one another, use intonation, interpret body language, and have
all sorts of underlying things going on. So in order to make
dialogue strong and powerful, it will not be like what you really
hear, and therein lie the difficulties. You canít just tape a
conversation and commit it to paper. It doesnít work. (Believe me, I
The mechanics of your dialogue matter greatly. An
important piece of advice is to cut out fancy dialogue tags wherever
possible. Rather than stimulating the readerís imagination, they
tend to distract. People "say" and people "ask." Use "said" and use
"asked" and go very, very sparingly with other tags like chuckled,
whined, begged, crooned, intimated, leered, posited, groveled,
declared, and so on. People do "yell" and they do "scream" or engage
in other high intensity histrionics. You will find at times that
"said" and "asked" donít quite cut it. But the point of dialogue
tags is to let the reader have just enough information about who is
speaking to be able to forge forward and hear the next sentence. The
tags should, for the most part, fade into the fabric of the
narrative, not describe the scene or speaker or somebodyís
Donít use dialogue tags and descriptive adverbs that
draw attention away from the words being spoken or the scene you are
painting. Thatís cheating the reader of seeing and feeling the
actual scene. Examples:
"I am so mad at her, I could kill her!"
she said angrily.(The *sentence* already tells us she is angry,
and the dialogue tag is unnecessary. It will also slow down the
"Now, now, not a good idea," Margie crooned
sagely. "You donít really mean that."
(This tag + adverb
doesnít tell us what Margie really thinks and feels.)Margie chuckled, "Oh, Millieóever the drama queen."
(How do people chuckle while speaking? That never squares up
for me.)Millie growled, "Iím gonna rip her
(People donít really growlówhy do so many people
use this tag? Besides, the statement all by itself informs the
reader that Millie feels like a wild animal. This is an example,
though, of a sentence where "said" might not be a powerful enough
tag. Perhaps there should be no tag. [See
The fewer dialogue tags you can use the better. If
you are writing a conversation (particularly a heated one) that
really rips along, you donít want to interrupt it with a lot of "he
said" and "she said." Dialogue flows naturally between two speakers,
and you, the author, can periodically identify whoís who without
having to do that for every line spoken. But if you have three or
more people speaking in a scene, then you have to provide more
identification to make sure the reader always knows who speaks. You
can often shift from one speaker to another without even using
"said/asked" if you talk about the speakerís posture or feelings or
Karin leaned back in her chair. "Aspiring
writers are fun to talk to."
"Yeah," Therese said. "Theyíve got so much
Marianne held up a hand. "I donít know about you
guys, but Iím starving. Letís continue talking about this while we
have a snack."
Lori catapulted out of the chair and headed for
the kitchen. Over her shoulder, she called out, "Cheese and
crackers coming right up!"
There is only one use of "said" in that entire
exchange. All the parties are still identified, and some of the
physical action is also detailed.
Another general guideline is to think in terms of
people first, action second. "She said," "he asked" ... not "asked
Mary" or "said Mary," which makes it sound like a 3rd grade Dick and
The more adverbs you stick into spoken sentences,
the weaker the sentence will be. For instance, which is
1. Desperately and plaintively, she
croaked, "But I love you."
2. Her eyes widened, and when she opened her mouth
to speak, a raspy sound came out. Heart beating hard against her
ribs, she said, "But I love you."
Okay, the second one is twice as long, but itís
grounded in physical sensations rather than intellectual
description. You donít think your way through the characterís
feelings; you feel them with her.
After you write your own scenes with dialogue, read
the spoken words aloud to yourself and note how they sound. Ask
other people to read those sections of your story and tell you what
seems wooden? What doesnít sing? What doesnít come off as smooth and
natural? Then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until each section of
dialogue enriches your story instead of diminishing it.
Another thing you can do is read books by favorite
authors who you know write great dialogue (or you assume they do
because you have never noticed anything clunky at all in their
writing!). Go to their scenes with dialogue and study them. How do
they lay out the spoken words? How do they fit in the descriptions?
What do they do to make it all flow? Why does it seem to work so
There is much more to be said about dialogue. Weíll
address it further in a later article. In the meantime, Chiarellaís
WRITING DIALOGUE is a good book specifically about this topic. Many
writing books have sections on dialogue. Go to the library or
bookstore and find books that suit you and read them.
If you have questions, comments, or divergent points
of view, please drop me an email at Lori@LoriLLake.com.
Lori L. Lake, 2003 - Associate Editor of Just About
her untitled book about novel writing, a work in
distribution or copying without the express permission of the
author. Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.