Let’s Talk

Good dialog is critical to good writing, after all, drama is not always about action, sometimes it relies on communication, or more often, miscommunication. Further, unless your characters are communicating in a nearly context-less manner – such as emails or texting — there are often other aspects that provide subtle cues, which impart more meaning to a scene. Witness the following:

Sal looked around the freezer. Chunks of meat hung on large hooks from the ceiling.
“What are you doing here?” Sal asked.
“Oh, just doing my job,” Victor replied. With a smack, his hand struck a side of beef.
“You work here?”
Victor stared at his hand, now glistening crimson. “Sometimes.”

Beats and tags

The mechanics of dialog are relatively straightforward. Someone speaks, and someone else replies. But who is speaking? Attributions are needed in dialog to allow the reader to follow who is saying what. There are two basic methods for doing this, sometimes done in combination, namely beats and tags. A tag is a direct attribution in the manner of an identifier (e.g., a name) alone with some equivalent to said or ask. i.e., Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.” We know precisely that Tim is speaking. Fairly simple, but sometimes terribly overused.

Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.”
“But why?” Roger asked. “I’ve done nothing.”
“You had an affair with his sister,” Tim said.
“Jennette is his sister? I had no idea,” Roger said.
“Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?” Tim asked.
“I can try to apologize,” Roger said.
“Good luck with that. He is usually armed,” Tim said.

As you can see, we clearly know who is speaking – but is all the attribution necessary? No, of course not. We have two characters talking to each other, back and forth, the attributions (beyond the initial identifiers) are annoyingly redundant, and can be eliminated.

Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.”
“But why?” Roger asked. “I’ve done nothing.”
“You had an affair with his sister.”
“Jennette is his sister? I had no idea,”
“Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?”
“I can try to apologize.”
“Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

Eliminating attributions is not without caveats in the sense that if the conversation is interrupted, or one of the characters shuts up, and the other keeps talking, we may need to throw in an attribution to reorient the reader. See the following:

“Jennette is his sister? I had no idea.”
Tim rolled his eyes.
“I can try to apologize,” Roger offered.
“Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

Things get more complicated when more than two characters are talking, like a round-table type discussion. Still, it can be handled, by not letting the conversation hop around like a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest.

Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.”
“But why?” Roger asked. “I’ve done nothing.”
Joe looked incredulous. “You had an affair with his sister.”
“Jennette was his sister? I had no idea,” Roger admitted.
“Well you know now. What are you going to do about it?” Joe asked.
“I can try to apologize.”
Tim scoffed. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

In this example, I had my three characters fill certain roles in the conversation. Tim became the summarizer, Joe, the interrogator, and Roger the accused. Further, I started with Tim and ended with Tim to book-end the conversation.

The Beat Goes On
A beat, on the other hand, is more of an implied attribution, such as a background character action or movement, that combined with a chunk of speech, indicates that the person is talking. For example, Tim stared with wide eyes at Roger. “He’s going to kill you.” The implication here is that Tim is speaking, though you can say it might also be Roger. This is where text placement plays a role. Consider the following:

Tim stared at Roger with wide eyes. “He’s going to kill you.”
Vs
Tim stared at Roger with wide eyes.
“He’s going to kill you.”

Is this Tim or Roger speaking? Hard to tell, and the reader might have to slow down and re-read to answer that question, which is not a good situation because you risk losing the reader’s attention and focus.

Adverbs in attributions
One of the marks of amateurish dialog is the use of adverbs with attributions. (i.e., Tim spoke loudly, Roger replied happily, Tim asked questioningly.) That is not to say that you can’t use adverbs to get your meaning across in an early draft, but they should be pinched out before you get to a critique review draft. Either delete them entirely, or alter your speech to imply the effect, or add a beat to infer what you intended.

“He’s going to kill you,” Tim said emphatically.
“But why?” Roger said questioningly. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“You had an affair with his sister,” Tim said accusingly.

First off, saying something emphatically is an intonation, like raising your voice, jabbing a finger, or something like that. Hence:
“He’s going to kill you,” Tim said in a raised voice.

Second, doing anything questioningly is either asking or acting like you don’t understand.
Tim tilted his head and pursed his lips. “But why? I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Third, sometimes just choose a better verb or attribution.
“You had an affair with his sister,” Tim accused.

Attribution variation
Be careful with attributions, though. “Said” is the accepted standard. Some replacements of said make sense, like the word “accuse” mentioned earlier. You can also grouse, mumble, whisper, and shout. But you can’t chortle or laugh and speak at the same time. They are separate actions.
Tim chortled. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”
If you really want some other options, consider these:
http://www.weareteachers.com/hot-topics/topics-in-education/-backtoschool/writers-workshop-poster-100-colorful-words-to-use-in-place-of-said
Still, “said” is the default, and overuse of substitutes is akin to the overuse of a thesaurus, which sends the message that you are not to be taken seriously.

Beats Vs Attributions
The trend nowadays is not to use tags but rather beats. That said, beats have the problem in shifting attention away from the ongoing conversation, and has the potential to put “noise” in the mind of the reader as they are trying to follow the conversation. A suggestion would be to limit the use of beats, particularly if they don’t aid the discussion.

Roger rubbed his arm and glanced toward the window. “But why? I’ve done nothing.”
Tim scratched his nose and adjusted his collar. “You had an affair with his sister.”

Argh! Give these guys some cortisone, ADD medication, or get rid of the beats entirely. Rule of thumb, if it doesn’t contribute to the scene, it has to go.

However, the judicious use of beats has the ability to add emotion and weight to a scene, that would require narrative elaboration.

Roger lifted his cup of tea, it wobbled slightly in his grip. “Jennette is his sister? I had no idea.”
Tim narrowed his eyes. “Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?”
Roger blinked. “I could apologize.”
Tim smirked. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

The beats impart some personality into the scene, beyond what is being said. They can also completely change the interpretation of the scene:

Roger smirked. “Jennette is his sister? I had no idea.”
Tim stared with wide eyes. “Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?”
Roger settled back in his chair and glanced at his watch. “I could apologize.”
Tim grimaced and leaned in. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

In the first instance, Roger is nervous, in the second, cool as a cucumber. So what is going to happen when Roger apologizes? Will he wet himself, or shove the pissed off brother out the window? Maybe they’ll talk first, but whatever they do — they won’t be chortling their dialog.

I hope this discussion has helped. Creating good dialog is such a complicated chore that I’ve only scratched the surface. Here are some links that might help continue the thread.

The 7 Tools of Dialogue

10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Dialogue

My Dialogue Sucks: Tips For Improving Dialogue In Your Novel

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