Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Overuse of dialogue tags

Keep Attribution Simple,” He…
retorted, uttered, commented, crieddared, voiced,
barked, returned, greeteddemanded, snapped,
observed, and muttered—but…
Seldom Said.
By eliminating excessive synonyms for “said” from
your writing, you can unlock the door to clearer prose,
stronger characters, and more narrative power.

Louis E. Catron
© 2002, Louis E. Catron

I've copied the above quote here because it says it it better than I could.

Lately I've begun to read books where the almost immediate turn-off for me has been the overuse of attributes and dialogue tags. Some have been absolute shockers, with pages peppered with he said, she said, murmured, giggled, guffawed, dribbled, titters - well, you get my drift. I'm sure. Whenever I read one of these attributes, my mind instantly goes to the action suggested by the verb and away from the story as I try to picture how someone speaks and titters, for example, at the same time. Surely in this instance titter is not the action of the words.

Another issue for me is the overkill of combining font type, punctuation and dialogue tags.


‘GET OUT!!!’ she yelled.

I have seen books where page after page of dialogue has been interspersed with writing that is virtually screamed at the reader. Not only is this off putting, after all no one likes to be yelled at, it also detracts from the all-important aesthetics of the publication. Unless you are telling, rather than showing the action, the reader would know from the preceding action or dialogue to expect the words to be screamed, however, if you must use upper case, there is no need to add an exclamation mark – yet alone multiples of these. You don’t want to deafen the reader, do you? The better your dialogue, the less need there will be to use devices such as this to convey what is happening.

Without convincing dialogue, readers can quickly lose interest as such inclusions often distract from the essence of the story, however, when done well, dialogue can advance the story at manageable pace as well as providing insights into the central characters. Used properly, it is an excellent technique for breaking up action scenes or long narrative and/or descriptive passages.

Writing realistic dialogue that reads like 'real' people talking can be one of the most difficult aspects of the creative writing process for some writers and I suggest observing how people talk to one another in real-life situations (listen in the conversations in waiting rooms, restaurants etc) and then strive to create dialogue that sounds like everyday conversations that reflects an honest interchange between key characters based upon the nature of the situation.

Ideally, dialogue should convey something new to the reader, something that contributes to mounting the suspense of the story, eliciting an emotional response or revealing some hidden components. However, there is no need to put everything into your dialogue constructions as this may make the conversations overly heavy and complex as opposed to simple and straightforward.

If a character is well-rounded (in the literary sense) the reader will intuitively ‘know’ their habits, behaviours and voice and, should the writer wish to include other pieces of information, this can be told within a narrative or reiterated with another character's point of view or quote.

Avoid having one character use another character’s name to establish identity, as people almost never say other people’s names back to them in general conversation.

Be wary of gratuitous use of expletives, slang etc. While slang or inflammatory comments may, on occasion, make your writing seem authentic and alive, avoid an excess of such dialogue as the writing may then  come across as 'trying too hard' which will cause you to lose credibility with your readers.

1 comment:

  1. When I first started to write I thought you had to tell everyone what was happening, and so what was described in the quote was the wayI wrote. It was hard to find another way of saying: said. After one of your sessions on the subject you opened up a whole new understanding for me, and words hit the page much easier.
    It took a while to grasp the function of show not tell, but now it has become a habit.
    I have recently read a regency romance, it is a first novel where the author has been duped by her publisher and they look to have printed the manuscript without a hard copyedit . The book is terrible. A good story poorly presented.

    For more about that, go to http://wurugi.blogspot.com.au

    Thanks for this informative piece Merlene.


For some reason I'm yet to fathom I'm unable to reply to comments left by others so thank you for dropping by and taking the time to read and comment. Merlene