Hello, Stirling Readers,
Today we’re going to talk about creative dialogue between your characters, or, how to avoid the “talking head” syndrome. It’s a common problem, especially for beginning writers, and it’s definitely one of those things a good editor can show you how to avoid.
The problem: what starts off as a stimulating, plot-driving conversation between two characters quickly turns into a convoluted, confusing, dried out string of sentences that only aggravate and/or confuse your reader.
One of the most confusing dialogue elements are those adverbial synonyms for the tag “said.” Instead of he said, some writers like to mix it up by throwing in he said quickly, he said haughtily, cooly, quickly, etc. Be wary of tags like these. The –ly suffix, no matter what word it’s attached to, can sound repetitive in a string of dialogue. My advice? Stay away from them. Rid your prose of as many as possible and don’t look back! Although it might be impossible to omit them all, try. There’s almost always a better way to phrase something (check out the links below to see what I’m talking about).
Other common “said” synonyms in dialogue tags appear as he barked, he asserted, she yelled, she confirmed, etc. A string of tags like these sounds mechanical, repetitive, amateurish, and BOOORING. He barked? Not possible. A man doesn’t bark. I do, because I’m a dog. She confirmed? To confirm with speech, all you need to do is say something like that’s right, or nod your head. The reader understands how someone confirms something, so you don’t need to tell them. Starting to make sense?
There’s nothing wrong with using just plain ol’ “said.” It’s short, innocuous, and open to the reader’s interpretation of how something is spoken, if they even notice the word to begin with. That’s a good thing. What’s even better about using just “said” is that it’s universally understood. You won’t confuse anyone by using it.
This doesn’t mean you still can’t get creative with dialogue. Dialogue needs to be engaging and immersive. Instead of using he said quietly, or he whispered, show the reader where the characters are before they start talking. A draft of midnight air fluttered through the silent, haunted attic. “What was that?” he said . . . Saying he said quietly or he whispered could work for that sentence too, but is it truly needed? Is the character a sleuthing detective or a loud-mouthed cheerleader? Your readers should know, and make the connection on their own.
Sensory input for the reader is always helpful. What are the characters seeing, feeling, smelling (my favorite), or hearing? Give characterization to the conversation before it even begins and the let the reader decide from there.
Ever seen Braveheart? Remember this scene? (If you don’t, hit yourself in the face. Not only is it incredibly epic, but the victory takes place at the field of Stirling, for which I was named) How much feeling is being related? Tons, but how much of it is spoken? The look in Wallace’s eyes, his firm grip on his sword, the army of Scots shouting his name. You know what’s going on and you’re sharing the moment because of what you’re seeing and feeling. The director has added elements to the scene that go beyond a bunch of dudes yelling victoriously.
Here’s another visual (albeit slightly inappropriate) example from the movie, Labyrinth. The characters don’t utter a peep about how much their environment reeks, but it’s pretty obvious based on what the audience hears and sees, right?
So, to wrap it all up, what does this lesson boil down to? Show the reader what’s happening. Don’t tell them. Don’t limit the scope of your dialogue to repetitive tags. Instead, give your reader the big picture of the world built around the conversation.