“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
~ From Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it Fern? Papa is off to do some revisions; to chop out unnecessary or clunky dialogue. And just like Fern, you may throw yourself in front of your manuscript, begging and pleading that Papa doesn’t take his axe to your work. But unlike Wilbur, “weaklings” in your dialogue are a sure way to stop your work from drawing the attention you want from agents and editors. Milk from a bottle won’t help.
So, let’s take a look at HOW dialogue is being used. Last week I discussed THE ART OF DIALOGUE, and this week we’ll tackle THE MECHANICS OF DIALOGUE.
Grab your axe…
PART II: THE MECHANICS OF DIALOGUE
Dialogue is such a unique animal, varying in context and application, that the points discussed below are merely basic elements to consider; to be cognizant of and perhaps avoid. However, like anything in writing, the “rules” are simply guidelines.
Robert McKee says it best: “Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form” (Story).
So what are some of the forms we should be aware of?
Tags: Ah, the old “he said,” “she said.” It is sometimes believed that in order to write effective dialogue, to entertain your reader, you need to flavor your dialogue tags. Why have “Wolfgang said” when you can have “Wolfgang exclaimed” or “Wolfgang reiterated” or even “Wolfgang screamed, happily?”
While there are certainly occasions where the writing calls for a flavorful tag (such as identifying the speaker, making the situation/emotion clear, or varying the read on the page), most times it comes down to lazy writing. Now hold on, don’t grab your torches and pitchforks. We all do it (and that’s what revision is for), myself included. By lazy writing, I mean that we are allowing the tag to do the work that the dialogue is supposed to do.
If Wolfgang exclaims, let him exclaim: “Hear me roar!” [the exclamation mark tells the reader that Wolfgang is, indeed, exclaiming]
Let the character’s words paint the picture:“Honey, it’s a boy,” said Helga. “I’m so happy, I could raid a village,” Wolfgang said. “Good, because we need milk.”
[In this example, Wolfgang tells the reader his emotional state]
Reiterating:“Are you serious?” said Helga. “Completely serious.” “I don’t believe you,” she said. “I’m serious,” said Wolfgang, “I drank all the milk … and ate their cows.”
[This example demonstrates how natural exchanges of dialogue can identify the speaker with not every line necessitating a tag and how the identity can be varied: Helga vs. she]
Pacing/Weight: Just like every scene should have a purpose in moving the story forward, we should know the purpose of dialogue exchanges (as well as the lines we give our characters). And while it is extremely important to know why a character is saying what they are saying (because we don’t want speech just for speech’s sake), I am more concerned with dialogue at the macro level. What is the purpose of the conversation? If you know that, you’ll be more aware of how you craft your dialogue on the page.
If you want a quick, snappy exchange, use shorter bits. This is also great for building tension and moving action along.“Wolfgang?” “Busy!” He pulled his axe from the giant’s foot. “That’s no excuse,” said Helga. “No excuse? I’m fighting a giant!” “And I’m nursing a baby.” “But-“ “Milk. Now,” Helga said, slamming the shutters closed.
Arguments should employ people cutting one another off and talking over each other (look at the end of the exchange above). If you want to slow a scene down, draw out the conversation, be methodical, deliberate.“So…” said the giant. He looked down at the axe in his foot. “Here we are.” Here. We. Are,” said Wolfgang. He smiled up at the massive creature. “Don’t suppose you’d like to help me with my axe here?” “Not particularly,” the giant said. “I’d actually much rather squash you.” “Understandable.” “Squish you flat.” The giant scratched his dry scalp. “After all, you deserve as much. Don’t you think?”
If you compare the exchange above to the exchange between Helga and Wolfgang, you’ll notice a difference in the white space on the page. Read it out loud, you’ll hear the gears shift between the two samples.
The Dreaded Info Dump: While I did mention that you should put your characters to work, allowing them to express emotional states or share some important information, you must handle this with care. Having characters open their mouths and vomit chunks of information that you, the writer, want to pass along to your reader is a tremendous NO-NO. Again, there must be a purpose for what a character says.
For example, Helga and Wolfgang are sitting in the kitchen:“As you know, Wolfgang,” said Helga, “we’re sitting in our kitchen.” “Yes, yes we are,” said Wolfgang. “The kitchen I just recently painted.” “Magenta, my favorite color.” “Magenta,” Wolfgang said. “A purplish red belonging to the primary color family.”
Yes, this is an extreme and silly example, but moments of inadvertent info dumping can happen before you know it (especially if you are building fantasy worlds, or introducing histories). Tease the info in. Avoid paragraphs of expository dialogue.“And so,” Wolfgang began, “it was said that in the days of my father, and his father before him, and his father’s father, and even in the days of his Uncle, twice removed, on his mother’s side, who first set eyes on the great dragon, Fizzylgraut…a dragon mind you who once fought the dwarves and the trolls and the elves, and some leprechauns, and the Dallas Cowboys…”
Ok, enough Wolfgang. By now we’ve hurled the book across the room and vowed to never ever EVER read anything by this author again.
Dialect/Slang: It just so happens that Writer’s Digest has a great article on this very topic in their current issue (May/June 2013). I urge you to check it out, but will offer these brief thoughts:
- Filling your dialogue with heavy slang and broken speech stops readers more often than you would expect.
Seriously? This would be the last sentence I would read and I don’t think I’d have many people disagree with me.
- If you’re going to use dialect, know the terms; know the “language.” Also know how heavy to paint it on the page. Balance, my friends. Listen to your words and let them sing, not stifle.
- Profanity: Know your audience, know the purpose. Is it true to the character? Is it necessary? Constant use weakens those moments profanity is employed and when used for simple shock factor, it is apparent and generally not appreciated.
While this is no way covers every nuance of writing dialogue, it will hopefully give you some things to consider. Like McKee tells us, “the Artist master(s) the form.” Know when to break ranks and when to color inside the lines. And as much as you may love a bit of dialogue, know when to step aside when Papa approaches your revision with his axe.
“We’re born, we live a little, we die.” So says Charlotte in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.
Crafting strong dialogue can help your work live long enough to attract the attention of an agent or editor, and to keep your readers turning the page.
Come back next week for Dialogue Part 3: WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR DIALOGUE.
Have any thoughts or suggestions on writing good dialogue? Let’s hear them!
Joe McGee is a children’s book author from southern New Jersey. He is a graduate of the Rowan University Master’s Writing Program and is currently pursuing his Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Joe is a former airborne Army officer, the father of three young boys, and an amateur cartoonist. His fiction and poetry have won national recognition.