Monday, October 09, 2006

Lesson 14: Dialogue Mechanics cont...

Monday, Monday...sheesh...I'm back where I started! Hope everyone had a great weekend. They're calling for snow here, on Friday! I guess the heat is gone!

Today we are continuing editing lessons from the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

These lessons will be shortened overviews of the chapters and by no means should be a substitute for buying the book. I'm rereading but not posting a lot of good stuff!

Let's continue. We've been working on Dialogue Mechanics.

Here are some dialogue faux pas...

"I hate to admit that," he grimaced.

"Come closer," she smiled.

"So you've changed your mind," he chuckled.

To use verbs like these three for speaker attributions is to brand yourself as an amateur...And to stick your character with an action that is physically impossible. No one outside of hack fiction has ever been able to grimace or smile or chuckle a sentence!

We're all in favor of choosing exactly the right verb for the action, but when you're writing speaker attributions the right verb is nearly always said.

The reason those well-intentioned attempts at variety don't work is that verbs other than said tend to draw attention away from the dialogue.

There are other ways to keep your speaker attributions transparent. Don't open a paragraph of dialogue with the speaker attribution. Instead, start a paragraph with dialogue and place the speaker attribution at the first natural break in the first sentence. ("I disagree," he said. "Plungers have...)

Place the character's name or pronoun first in a speaker attribution ("Dave said"). Reversing the two ("said Dave"), though often done, is less professional. It has a slightly old-fashioned, first-grade-reader flavor ("Run spot, run" said Jane.)

After all, "said he" fell out of favor sometime during the Taft administration...LOL!


First check your dialogue for explanations. It may help to take a highlighter and mark every place where an emotion is mentioned outside of dialogue.

Cut the explanations and see how the dialogue reads without them. Better? Worse? If it's worse, then start rewriting your dialogue.

As long as you have your highlighter out, mark every -ly adverb. How many are there? How many of them are based on an adjective describing an emotion? You can probably do without most of them.

How about your speaker attributions? Any physical impossibilities? Any verbs other than said? Remember though, there are occasional exceptions, even innocuous verbs like replied or answered lack the unobtrusiveness of said.

Can you get rid of some of your speaker attributions entirely? Just drop them and see if it's still clear who is speaking.

Have you started a paragraph with a speaker attribution?

Name before noun ("Renni said") rather than the other way around ("said Renni")?

Have you referred to a character more than one way in the same scene (using different forms of their name)?

Ellipses for gaps, dashes for interruptions, right? (I'm very bad at this one, right Mimi?)

How often have you paragraphed your dialogue? Try paragraphing a little more often and see how it reads.

And now for a little fun!


You are driving in a car at a constant speed. On your left side is a big drop, and on your right there is a fire engine traveling at the same speed as you. In front of you, running side by side, are a pig and horse.

You cannot overtake them.

Behind is a helicopter chasing you at ground level.

What can you do to safely get out of this dangerous situation?

[answer at end]

I was listening to a lady who called a radio pastor.

The pastor was a wise, grandfatherly gentleman who has that calm reassuring voice that can melt all fear.

The lady, who was obviously crying, said, "Pastor, I was born blind, and I've been blind all my life. I don't mind being blind but I have some well meaning friends who tell me that if I had more faith I could be healed."

The pastor asked her, "Tell me, do you carry one of those white canes?"

"Yes I do," she replied.

"Then the next time someone says that hit them over the head with the cane," he said. "Then tell them 'If you had more faith that wouldn't hurt!'"

[Answer: Get off the children's merry-go-round]


  1. Bernita said...
    I understand the restictions, but they may be right for the wrong reasons.
    Honestly, people do smile at the same time they speak.
    Ballpoint Wren said...
    That's a cute joke!
    Rulan said...
    Hey, where have the lessons gone? Are you going to post any more?

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