My teenage son is constantly getting into trouble with Mom. It’s because of his mouth.
“The problem’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”
With dialogue the problem can be both.
First, I need to know who’s talking. That means attribution tags are important to include as early into the speech as possible. I read books to my kids, and I do voices for certain characters. You’d be surprised how often I have to double back after reading two or three lines of speech, because the author did not let the reader know who was talking until the very end.
If I’m critiquing a piece and I come to a point where I don’t know who’s talking, I’ve identified a problem for the writer to fix.
Second, I need to know how something is said, but this can be tricky. I used to try descriptive speech verbs. He muttered, she bellowed, he shrieked, she replied, he shot back, she wondered aloud. However, conventional wisdom considers that a form of “telling” instead of “showing.” Therefore I avoid it. Here’s why:
If a question is asked and another character responds, the words they speak will make that relationship clear. If a character complains about a situation, my mind will imagine them muttering without having to be told. How about the difference between:
“Get away from her, or I’ll kill you,” Ashton shouted. He aimed the gun at the robber.
as opposed to:
Ashton leveled the pistol at the robber. The hammer clicked back. “Get away from her, or I’ll kill you where you stand.”
Which reads stronger?
She looked down at the strange symbol on her hand. “What is this,” she yelled. “What does it mean?”
as opposed to:
She looked down at the strange symbol on her hand. Her eyes wide, her face ashen, she gasped and gripped her sister’s arm. “What is this? What does it mean?”
Which one merely tells the reader she’s panicked? Which one helps the reader hear it in her “voice” on their own?
I use “said” and “asked” almost exclusively. They become almost invisible. For my taste, I use something special only if there’s a chance a reader might think it was said in a different way. For example, “whispered” might be useful if it is the next line of dialogue in the middle of an argument, to note the sudden change in tone.
Third, dialogue has to sound natural. When I write out a conversation, I read it out loud to see if I would stumble over any of the words. If a sentence is hard for me to spit out when I’m calm, then it’s probably impossible for my character to say when she’s in a crisis or heated argument.
There’s a special consideration for fiction: accents. Sometimes we want to show that a character has a certain ethnic background by typing dialogue to show the accent. This can be done well, but must be done with consistency and can’t be such a heavy ‘accent’ that the reader has to try to figure out what’s being said. As usual, less is more. Describe the accent, then go for clarity.
A stereotypical fantasy example is that Dwarves all have a Scottish brogue. “Aye, laddie, me an’ my kin are headin’ out to th’ Castle o’ th’ Dark Elves ta crush th’ snot outta those wee dirty cavedwellers.” Painful.
Patterns of speech might be preferable to attempts at accent. Describe the unique qualities of the sound – a lilting voice, a thick rumble, rolling consonants, slurring words. Then write the character with a special order of words, such as, “I will speak to my cousin, yes? My cousin, he knows these things you seek. This is good thing. He and I, we help you.”
That way the character sticks out with an identifiable voice, without forcing the reader to figure out what you’re trying to say through “accented” dialogue.
Finally, dialogue is best in short bursts. I write a few words first, then show some action taking place or include the character’s thought, then place the next spoken sentence.
“When I write,” David said, “I try to time the breaks in speech to create a rhythm.” He stroked his chin and stifled a yawn. Man, I’ve been talking about dialogue too long. “By including action and thought in between snippets of dialogue, I show the reader a more complete picture of what’s going on.”
Obviously there’s more to it than those points. Whole books are written on the subject of crafting dialogue. But these are some of the things I look for when critiquing a piece.
And I think I’ve said enough.
If you’re stopping by for the A to Z Blog Challenge, thanks! Tomorrow, even though we’re nowhere near finished with the A to Z challenge, I will be looking at critiquing endings.