In a previous post, The Making of a Hero, Part 2, I wrote that a character comes alive to the reader through four processes: their actions, descriptions (least preferable most times), their thoughts, and what they say (and to a degree how they speak).
He Said it Best
Dialogue gives readers insight to your character’s purposes, desires, and motivations, and thereby speaks volumes about who they are—Let them speak.
And use said most often. Said is an innocuous word passed over like the or a, connectors allowing the reader to focus on what’s really important in the sentence. In the case of dialogue, said gives the clarity of who is speaking each time. That’s its purpose.
The trouble looms—and foolishness follows—when the writer decides to add adverbs to explain what Frank said, or how.
“I didn’t know he’d come,” Frank said foolishly.
Who says Frank is being foolish? Is Frank the viewpoint character, or is it someone else, and why would either think his words are foolish?
The problem, you may realize, is that the writer of that sentence is telling the reader how to feel about Frank. When you use -ly adverbs to tell the how something is being said, you are in essence telling the reader that the character’s words do not accurately or wholly describe what you want them to feel.
Writing such a sentence is laziness. Although it may be fine as a “reminder” in the first draft of what you really want to say, that’s all it’s good for—Rewrite the sentence.
One way is to add an action beat or a thought.
“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, feeling foolish.
Better yet, use sensory description to indicate Frank’s state of mind.
“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, and felt his face flush.
Frank could lower his eyes, glance away, or any number of reactions that shows how he feels. Consider, though, that what you show may not be absolutely clear to the reader unless they have a good idea of Frank’s personality beforehand. Lowering his eyes, glancing away, even his face flushing could indicate Frank is shy rather than embarrassed or feeling foolish.
Said followed by an adverb, though grammatically correct, removes the power of the words spoken.
He said feverishly; she said poetically; they intoned simultaneously all say little. How do you say something feverishly? Are the words fast and furious, or is the character sweating? If your character is going to say something poetically, wouldn’t it be just that, a poem? Intoned simultaneously—you probably lost the reader here.
No Tension, No Reason
Dialogue has one of two functions that are always entwined: characterization and forward plot movement. Adding tension is critical to up the ante for your characters.
Gloria Kempton, in her book, Dialogue, from Writer’s Digest’s Write Great Fiction series, states the value of tension within dialogue this way:
“Dialogue’s purpose, and there is no exception to this, is to create tension in the present and build suspense for what’s to come.”
Can’t get any clearer about dialogue’s importance than that.
“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, looking away.
What a fool. “Of course you knew he’d follow you.”
In this example, the viewpoint character is not Frank, and the VP’s reaction (their words and internal thoughts) speak to Frank’s character as well as their own while adding tension between the two. It’s always nice to have multiple layers within dialogue.
Character movements can often add to the words and a scene’s tone.
Dana adjusted the flowers in the vase, and glanced over her shoulder at Francis. “Ben must have gone to the cabin in the middle of a work week for a reason.”
Depending on your story (has Ben gone missing, was he found murdered at the cabin, or caught in an affair?), Dana’s words hint at a tension, asking the question why Ben was at the cabin when he should have been at work.
Dana stared the bay window, focused on nothing but the one question that kept rattling through her head. “Why did Ben go to the cabin when he had an important appointment scheduled at 2 PM?”
This example shows distraction and concern: again, tension underscores her speech.
Making Speech True
Another point: watch to make sure your characters speak according to their environment and time period. Today few people say “groovy” although it was quite popular among the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s, and in the same way someone from the JFK period would not refer to “virtual reality.”
And, for your reader’s sake, do not give a character warped speech (even if it’s what you want to imply) by having them say, “Took me youngins down fir to the wat’rin hole cuzin’ they’s be wantin’ ta swim.” This becomes tedious quickly.
Instead, use only one or two “triggers” to indicate dialect: “Took me youngins to the watering hole ’cause they wanted be swimmin’ ” does a much better job, and doesn’t force the reader to work so hard.
And sometimes a zinger is the perfect fit.
“You could have said it different.”
“What, like gentle?”
“At least a little softer.”
“To save her feelings?” She nodded. “Sure, I could have sympathized, told her I understood it’s hard to leave, but that’s just another person giving her a reason to stay. I told her the truth, tomorrow she could be wheeled out under a pressed white sheet.”
Most of all, have fun writing dialogue. Think of the back-and-forth of a conversation, one character needling for answers while another is trying to save face or protect something or someone.
For a deeper study of dialogue, I recommend Gloria Kempton’s book mentioned and Character, Emotions, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress (also within the Write Great Fiction series).
See you on the next page,
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” ~Joseph Heller
Writer Beware from SFWA—Good information for writers looking for agents or publishers.
Some of the best Sword and Sorcery books.
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