Strengthening Dialog

I know, I know, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. But I’ve been writing! I finished my novel in March, then went through several heavy edits.

This past month I attended the Antioch Writers’ Workshop again, and I took my fifth chapter to review. We learned many great things at the workshop, but today I’ll cover only one of them, revealed to us by our facilitator, David Coe, a published author. It’s about strengthening dialog by paying attention to dialog tags, the phrases attributing spoken words to specific characters.

Said Bookisms
This sounds like a strange term, but it refers to using something more pretentious than “he said” or “she asked” in dialog tags. For example: “she hollered.” Although hollered seems like a strong verb, editors consider this telling rather than showing. It’s a shortcut that bypasses action and description to convey how someone said something or who said it. Editors also consider said bookisms to be melodramatic. They’re a common amateur’s mistake and can yank a reader out of the story. So we writers have to avoid the temptation to use tags like exclaimed, murmured, shouted, whimpered, asserted, inquired, demanded, queried, thundered, whispered and muttered. These words make it sound as if we have fallen in love with our thesaurus. Using “said” is much less disruptive to the narrative.

He Said, She Said
And now, in a bit of conflict with the lesson from the last paragraph, another mistake with dialog tags is using “he said” and “she said” too often or too close together. It can get choppy and repetitive. This was the main problem with my chapter reviewed this summer. Don’t hyperventilate, this principle doesn’t mean we have to avoid using “she said” as well, but monotony is always bad. There are other ways to attribute dialog that vary the rhythm and cadence of the writing. Whenever a character speaks, we have the opportunity to attribute the dialog to him/her by adding a little gesture or action within the same paragraph. Here’s a simple example of a repetitious dialog tag improved in this way (for context, the female character was trying to apply lipstick in the car):

Dialog snippet:

“I didn’t know the roads were so bad,” he said.
“They’re always bad!” she said, annoyed. “Now I have to start over.”

Changed to:

“I didn’t know the roads were so bad,” he said.
“They’re always bad!” She snapped her purse shut. “Now I have to start over.”

Now there’s action instead of yet another “she said.” Also, “annoyed” was telling instead of showing. With the change, there’s the implication that she’s annoyed, just by what she says and describing the way she closed her purse.

Dialog attribution becomes more important if there are three or more characters involved. But if only two people are talking, we certainly don’t need to keep writing “he said,” “she said.” The speaker should be clear from the natural exchange of comments and from new paragraphs.

This was a super-valuable exercise in strengthening dialog. Thanks to David and all our workshop members!