The quality of dialog varies from writer to writer, from book to book and sometimes even within one book. There is ugly dialog, which lets you close the book, or bad dialog, over which you jump to get to the better part of the story. On the other side of the spectrum, there is good dialog that brings the story forward and awesome dialog which is witty and fun reading. Awesome dialog reveals more than what the words say.
Part two of my dialog series brings you away from ugly or bad dialog.
1. Said vs the 100 ways to say say
Beg, remark, shout, remind, moan, narrate, bark, concede - last month I saw a Pinterest pin showing 234 synonyms for "said". Five people liked it and it was repined several times. Somebody even was excited to finally have this list so she wouldn't have to use say so often anymore. On the other side, every writing guidebook I picked up and every podcast I listened to suggests to stick with say.
I say, reduce dialog tags to the bare minimum you need to and stick with say. With that, you already reduce the number of times you write "say".
"But not everything in dialog is said, sometimes it is whispered, sometimes yelled," I hear you say.
It is the same with "Show, don't tell"; if you have two people being careful not be caught while watching a scene at night, they whisper. You don't have to write "John whispered" as dialog tag. Even with something like "I hate you" - look at these two examples:
Christine came closer. "I hate you." I could sense her warm breath in his ear.
"I hate you." Her eyes had this hard glare I knew from when her dog was run over by a car.
Using whisper, yell, moan is telling not showing. Having said that, there are moments to replace say with a more specific word or (all delicate writer souls, please skip that next 5 words) specify say with an adverb. But why that now? Simple reason: If you are in the middle of a dialog you might not want to interrupt the flow.
But don't get lazy. Use this sparsely.
2. E-mail dialog vs. real live dialog vs. writing dialog
Writing dialog is different than real dialog. In real dialog you talk much more, using filling words.
"Hi John, how are you?"
"Same old, same old. You?"
"Have you seen the game on Sunday?"
"Great catch from Miller, but the defense was weak."
"Yeah. So how is the family?"
"My daughter is getting married next month. We are all busy with the preparation."
vs. in writing:
"Hi John, how are you? How is the family?"
"Great. My daughter is getting married next month. We are all busy with the preparation."
The recipe is to get to the point without loosing the mood the conversation.
And there is the very ugly e-mail dialog, where one side holds a monolog and than the other part answers in a monolog - just like an e-mail conversation. Please stay away from this.
3. Character voice in dialog
Dialog is a great chance to peel out a character's voice. Don't get me wrong, dialog is only one part of character's voice, more important are his basic appearance, his emotions, his reactions and ultimately his decisions.
The way somebody talks has a) integrated with he or she feels and reacts etc. as well as b) distinct from how others are talking and c) consistent throughout the story. However, character voice is a whole topic on its own and I already have one or two blog posts in mind about this.
Part three and the last post about dialog for the moment will be about some special topics and techniques, such as trialog (multiple people talking), the art of talking by not saying something and others.
Your writer in a foreign land