Friday, March 1, 2019

Let’s Talk …


Dialogue tags, hints, tips and gripes

By Abir


So this is my first proper post. Things just got real, and I’m quickly realising that posting on a Friday means that all of the clever, most useful tips have already been raised by my colleagues. The pressure’s on!

Before starting, I’d point out that the usual caveat applies: there are no hard and fast rules, and for every piece of generally accepted advice, there are authors out there, busily breaking the convention and doing so to great effect.

Having gotten that out of the way, the first thing I’d say is that written dialogue isn’t the same as spoken dialogue. What sounds natural in conversation often sounds stilted on the page. What’s more, when written down verbatim, spoken dialogue is often full of ummsand aaahsand pauses and repetitions and tangents; and such things don’t make for good prose. I think one of the keys to writing good dialogue is to keep it short, crisp, relevant and pared back. For me, the king of such dialogue is Lee Child. Here’s a page from his novel ‘The Midnight Line’, chosen at random and which is mostly a conversation between Jack Reacher and another character.


One of the first things you notice is just how short and snappy so many of the sentences are. A lot of them are only five words or less. It gives us the sense of back and forth, almost like a rally in a tennis match. The conversation humms and zings and is absent of all the superfluous asides and tangents and pauses of normal speech. People don’t often speak like this, but it sounds just right on the page. 

Another point to make is that to hone dialogue down to such a precise level isn’t easy. The words are short and snappy but writing in this style isn’t easy and takes a lot of practice. (I know, because I’ve tried!)

Dialogue tags – Who said that he said or she said?

As others have pointed out this week, when tagging dialogue it’s often best to stick to the tried and tested: ‘she said / he said’. Our brains tend to gloss over them when reading and they have the advantage of thus almost blending into the page so that the flow of conversation is undisrupted. 
The only other tag I use with any frequency is ‘asked’. There are a few others I use, but I tend to reserve these more emotive tags such as ‘shouted’ or the almost nuclear ‘screamed’ for very special occasions.

What’s more, with practice, you won’t even need to use ‘she said/he said’ tags particularly often, especially if the dialogue consists of short and snappy sentences. One of my favourite writers, the late Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther novels, was a master of this. He would use ‘He said,’ once at the start of a conversation and then rely on his writing and his readers’ understanding of the back and forth dialogue to know who was speaking. Of course, this becomes much harder when there are more than two parties talking, but it’s still possible to achieve by use of distinct spoken mannerisms of the parties or from the context of the conversation.

Which brings me on to:

Accents – ‘Are you talkin’ to me?’

A question a lot of writers ask (me included) is just how authentically we should reproduce accents and regional speech patterns. 

We all wear these, all of the time
Now I might write:
 ‘As ye ken, A’hm fae Scotlan’ an’ tha’s why ah talk lik this.’
Or I could just write:
‘As you know, I’m from Scotland, and that’s why I talk like this.’ 

The former may be more authentic in terms of my speech patterns, but it’s harder for a reader (especially a non-Scottish one) to follow. It might take them longer to understand what my character is saying, and if a book is full of such dialogue, that can get tedious. On the other hand, the latter version is shorn of all colour and authenticity. It’s the Queen’s English, and that’s often quite dull (no offence, Your Majesty!)

Irish people do NOT say this
What’s more, accents can be a minefield, especially if your characters’ accents are not your own. There’s the risk of making mistakes or inadvertently writing dialogue that stereotypes the speakers (Irish people don’t actually say ‘Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!’).

I find that a good compromise is to write in standard English, but adding a few words or phrases now and again to give you a flavour of the accent of the character. For example, if my character was an early 20thcentury Englishman (or Spike Lee at the Oscars), instead of saying ‘I hate that, it’s awful!’, he might say. ‘That’s just not my cup of tea,’ or a Scotswoman might occasionally use the word ‘wee’instead of ‘little’. Pretty much the rest of the dialogue, however, would be standard modern English.

So that’s it from me for today. I’ll just end by saying that when done right, dialogue can be some of the most interesting and visceral elements of a novel. It can reel a reader into the story in a way that description often can’t. With practice, you’ll find your written dialogue will improve and you might even end up smiling at the conversations your characters go on to have. So keep writing and have fun!

3 comments:

Catriona McPherson said...

I'm so glad the apostrophe, as heavy lifter of dialect representation, seems to be dying out!

Susan C Shea said...

I'm so grateful you used the right word, "hone " rather than "home." Welcome Abir!

Brenda Chapman said...

Love your post to round out the week - you've recognized the beauty of being the Monday blogger :-)