Thank you, Terri, for allowing me to visit your blog today to discuss the backbone of any good story—the dialog. Can you imagine reading a book without hearing the characters speak? Dialog doesn’t just add verbal liveliness to a story, but tells us about the person talking and a little about the person being spoken to. It also drives us through the literary dream world we’re creating for our readers.
To write dialog that pulls the reader deeper into the story, there are some things the author must know about the characters.
Age—Teenagers use slang that grandmas, like me, seldom use. “You see what I’m sayin’?” “True that” I love it when an author takes the time to incorporate a young child’s speech patterns into a story. “But, Mommy, I like da wed shoes.” Let me tell you, I’m in love with the child already and I’m reaching for my charge card.
Sex—Men speak differently than women. They typically use shorter sentences or grunts. Sometimes, a stronger peppering of cuss words too. Women will often use the phrase “I feel like…” A man, not so much. Also, we talk differently around members of the opposite sex than we do around a group of our own sex. Listen to people talk in the mall or in a restaurant. There’s “girl talk” and then there’s “woman to man” talk. No, it doesn’t always contain flirting, but there are subtle differences.
Education—Has your character graduated from high school or college? Vocabulary levels will differ to a degree between the two education levels, not much, but enough to be noticeable.
Character’s Background—Different parts of the country speak differently. Some say soda; some say soda pop, or simply pop. Some areas drop the g’s off the endings of words (something more prone in an older person than someone younger). English speaking people of other nationalities are less prone to use contractions.
Location of Your Story—If your story takes place in another country, pick a half-dozen to a dozen words to use in that country’s native tongue. Words readers will find easily recognizable. For example, in my stories set in Paris, I used oui for yes, cherie for sweetheart, mon ami for my friend, or café au lait for coffee with cream. In my Scottish paranormals, I made a list of words to consistently use to add flavor and sense of place. Remember any words written in a language other than English go in italics.
Dialog tags are a sign of weak writing, so avoid them. I was shocked the first time my agent sent back a manuscript with every dialog tag crossed out and a note in the comments section—“You can do better. This is a sign of weak writing. Use your action beats to indicate who is speaking. This will strengthen your writing.”
Well, folks, I didn’t even know what an action beat was! I had a good pity cry over that…and I don’t mean a few weepy tears, either. How was I to keep dialog straight? My readers would be confused? How would removing “he said/she said’s” strengthen my writing?
So, I practiced and worked and rewrote until I could turn an 85,000 word manuscript over to my editor for her to read and edit with zero said tags. My biggest challenge was the tag “he/she whispered.” I don’t know why that one was so hard for me to master, but I was all kinds of tickled when I finally figured it out.
Yes, writing without said tags requires more work for the author, but it creates a more vibrant visual for our reader. Let me give you a quick example.
1.) “Was that Aaron’s truck I just saw leaving?” Taylor asked when he stormed in.
2.) Taylor stormed into the kitchen and tossed his keys on the counter, their clanging disturbing the quiet and making Emma wince. Taylor’s brown eyes narrowed and his face reddened with anger beneath his dark scruff of beard. “Was that Aaron’s truck I just saw leaving?”
Now, which example gave you the better visual? The deeper emotion—both his and hers? Which one drew you deeper into the scene? Hopefully, the one without the “said tag.” Yes, example 2 was more work for me, but my goal is to create page turners that pull you deeper into the literary dream world I’m creating for you. To do that, I must work at it, even if it means rewriting it a dozen times.
As a reader, I find dialog tags annoying, especially the he/she said after a question mark. Think about it. A question mark only has one function. One. To indicate that the previous string of words were asked in a questioning manner. So why would you insult your readers’ intelligence by slapping on he/she said afterward as if they were too dumb to know what that “?” meant? We cannot insult our readers this way. We entertain, we transport them to other worlds, we even educate to a degree, but we never, ever insult their intelligence.
Vonnie Davis is an award-winning, international author who likens herself to a French croissant: warm, crusty, wrinkled and a tad flaky—and best served with strong coffee. With an English degree and a career as a technical writer, making the shift to romance writer should have been a breeze. Too bad she hadn’t a clue. Now she realizes the learning curve of a good writer is continual. She began her career with smaller presses, but now writes paranormal and contemporary romance, both with a splash of suspense, exclusively for LoveSwept/Random House and HarperImpulse. She lives in southern Virginia with her husband who doesn’t seem to mind her craziness; perhaps because he’s a writer too.
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