Improve Your Dialogue

Improve Your Dialogue

Using “He said.” in your dialogue? 

I don’t often give actual tips on how to compose stories. I tend to focus my lessons on storytelling to things that you can’t learn elsewhere.  Yet from time to time, it might be worthwhile to actually give a few technical tips. Today we will go over one on how to improve your dialogue. 

A few years ago, I listened to a bestselling writer give perhaps the worst advice on dialog tags that I’ve ever heard.  He told new writers, “Never use the word said.  It’s boring and repetitious.  Worst of all, it doesn’t really tell us much about the feeling behind what has been spoken.”

His advice was that you should “mix it up, and never repeat verbs that deal with speaking on the same page.  If you are forced to use the word said, he suggested that you add an adverb to it in order to define the quality of the words spoken.  

Given his advice, you might have a teen “mumble” one sentence:

“I don’t want to go to church,” she mumbled.

While the reply would use a different verb:

“Well you’re going to go, Missy,” Dad retorted.

The problem that arises is that we find ourselves using a lot of verbs that seem rather silly when put into a string of tags.  Thus, you might have people mumbling, shouting, profaning, teasing, snarling, squealing, averring, blaming, and so on in rapid succession.   

Do you see the problem?  When you handle dialog that way, you fall into a trap where your characters seem to be emotional butterflies, endlessly flitting from one powerful emotion to another.  Sometimes authors even fall into the trap of using unfortunate combinations:

“Why don’t you come over to my place?” she teased.

“Sure!” he ejaculated.

In reality, people don’t flit from one powerful emotion to another.  Each person that you meet has something of an emotional tone about them.  Some people are stern most of the time, while others might be thoughtful, pleasant, or excited.  So when you write about that person, you’ll most often be depicting that person with his or her natural tone. The link is to a lesson on common mistakes writers make in regards to tone. 

Many a literary writer would suggest that we use the words said or asked when we make our attributions.  Both of these words are neutral in tone.  This allows the writer to imply the tone through the content of the dialog.  If I write:

“Get your butt out of my chair,” he said. 

I don’t need to modify it with a verb like roared, shouted, fumed, and so on.  Nor do I really need to add an exclamation mark.  The tone of the speaker in this case is implied by the content of the sentence.

Another advantage of plain old said is that it’s invisible in your writing.  You can repeat the verb in every line of dialog in a short story, and no reader will ever complain.  (In the same way, character names don’t attract too much attention.  If you’re writing about the Wizard Wythian, you can repeat his name a dozen times on a page without the reader feeling that it is overused.)

But there are a couple of problems when using said.  Often a writer might modify the word for greater effect when a different verb would be more suitable.  For example, you might say “she said very softly,” when “she whispered” actually conveys the same information more concisely.

For this reason, many literary writers will tell you to “get rid of adverbs,” the words that end in –ly, and as a result they will search through a document during their editing process trying to get rid of as many –ly words as possible.

However, getting rid of all of your adverbs can lead to new problems.  If you’ve read a lot of authors from the past 70 years, you’ll find that their style is becoming increasingly homogeneous as they allow their writing to be informed by such strictures.  In short, too many a writer now writes in an abbreviated Hemingway-esque style that feels smooth and professional but which also sounds like the same voice as any of ten thousand other writers.  You can learn to write in that homogeneous tone by following a popular handbook, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  For this reason, I’ve heard authors complain that Strunk and White have stolen the voices from an entire generation of America’s young writers.  We sound like clones.

Fortunately, there are corners of the world where authors have never listened to Strunk and White.  If you take a close look at the work of many writers from the U.K., their voices often come through as being more delightful, quirky, and textured than the voices of their American counterparts.

Given this, an author should feel free to mix things up.  Use said and asked when you feel that they are appropriate, especially when sentences are spoken in neutral tones, but also search for more powerful verbs for your dialog tags when they fit, and even feel free to modify your dialog tags with ––ly verbs when you please.  In particular, use adverbial modifiers to said when the modifier is surprising:

I could pull the trigger on you right now, Rachel lovingly said.  

But don’t use adverbial modifiers just to surprise the reader.  There are plenty of times when it just sounds better poetically.  You can even stack a couple of adverbs for effect.  I don’t think that most critics will mind if, on occasion, you write a sentence like:

 Softly, slyly, Sylvia leaned close to Buck and said, “Let’s you and me spend a little time together, and never whisper a word about it to your wife.”

Can you hear the poetry in that adverbial combination?  In short, it’s about time that we recognize that arguing to rid the world of adverbs is bad advice no matter which high-powered critic it comes from.  It’s time for writers to take back their voices and regain their individuality.

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” 

—Nathaniel Hawthorne

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