Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dialogue Coach :: Speaking of Revisions

Spotting your own bad writing is an important skill; spotting your own bad dialogue habits is crucial.  I have been told that I write dialogue well, especially scenes with large numbers of people talking.  I love doing it because it allows me to put ideas on the table that would not occur to my main characters and deal with some expository business without writing any monologues or extended omniscient narration (Both of which I hate).

I can think of five things that will absolutely kill a dialogue scene.
  1. Point of View problems. (Head-hopping)
    Be clear about your POV character(s) and stay out of the heads of the other speakers. This is called "head-hopping")  If your POV character doesn't know it, don't show it.
  2. Who said that? (Unclear pronoun antecedents.)
    If you have more than one character of a gender, you must be very careful with or not use gender pronouns to tag dialogue.
  3. Author ventriloquism.
    Your characters must talk like themselves, not like you.  Each character must have a unique voice, mannerisms, and linguistic fingerprint.  A longshoreman won't speak the same way an author speaks or a professor.  Trust me, I know some professors and longshoremen.
  4. Adverbs. (Adverbs present dialogue badly.)
    Adverbs are vampires, sucking the life out of dialogue.  Type "ly" into the search function of your word processor and delete almost every word it finds with that suffix.  Your writing will be better for it. 
  5. Bad dialogue tags.
    Said, asked
    or typed (because we live in a text-rich world, sometimes dialogue takes place on a keypad)
The most prevalent problem I see is the last one.  So, let's talk a bit about dialogue tags

When was the last time you simpered?  Really?  How about the last time you exulted?  Personally, I can't remember the last time I hissed, sighed or grumbled a conversation.  (Okay, I'll admit to the occasional grumbling, but it's worth noting that when I grumble something, my wife usually asks me to repeat it because when someone grumbles, it's usually hard to hear them.)

These things are called "dialogue tags" and for the most part, they're a sign of lazy writing.  Rule number three in Elmore Leonard's fabled "10 Rules" is "Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue."  The ladies at Editorrent included "Bad Dialogue Tagging" on their list of things that mark an amateur.  Blogging agent Nathan Bransford has led many a spirited debate over why, when and if dialogue tags like "Exulted" should be stricken from the written record.  . .  If I listed all the debates raging across the internet on this topic, we'd be here all day.

I'm a big fan of saying that the only concrete rules of writing are "Butt goes in chair and words go on page", but that's a definition of writer that falls short on the subject of craft.  It's not enough to vomit words onto a page if no one will reads them.  And if they're not enjoying it, they'll stop. Your job is to keep them from stopping.

I attended a workshop at the PNWA conference when someone (I'm sorry, there were so many, I think it might've been Bob Mayer) said that any word other than "said" might make a reader pause.  Again, your job is to keep the reader reading.  If they stop, you're dead.

There are exceptions to any rule and one reason why the debate still rages is that there are a goodly number of best-selling examples of bad dialogue.  One of the few complaints I have about JK Rowling, in fact is that she tends to play fast and loose with words like "exulted" and "ejaculated" to describe dialogue.

My default position on this is that anything sparking this much debate should be used advisedly if at all.  And by 'advisedly' I mean that you need to know that there will be people burning you in effigy if you think you can get away with it.  I'm not here to satisfy grammarians, but I am in the business of keeping readers reading.

I honestly believe that the most common reason we use these things isn't because we don't trust our readers to infer emotion or delivery.  I've heard that said a thousand times and I just don't believe that it's true.  I think it's because writers love words and said and asked get boring after awhile. The method I use to get around this is the action lead-in or breakout.  That's to say that I preface or end dialogue describing a bit of action which stages the dialogue.  This is discussed quite ably in this article so I won't bother to reinvent the wheel.   

When I am revising a story, I type the following words into the "Search" box and eradicate almost every one that I find:  hissed, sighed, grumbled, yelled, screamed, complained, whined, temporized, exclaimed, worried, blurted, confessed, intoned, simpered.

That's not a complete list, but those are the ones I find myself using if I drop my guard.  You'll have your own list (and yes, you really should be keeping one) of words you overuse.  At the end of the revision, I'm not perfect, but I am better for having done it.

Good luck!

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