Says Who?

Most fiction is about people. And with the exception of a few stories by Jack London, most stories include scenes where people talk with other people. A story that proceeds from beginning to end entirely without dialog is bound to seem a bit stiff, a bit less engaging than it could be. That being the case, writers tend to write dialog.

The mechanics of dialog have changed a bit over the centuries. (So have the mechanics of the written word, for that matter. In ancient Rome, words were not reliably separated from one another by spaces.) Today quotation marks are the norm — but even there, British English customarily uses single quotation marks, while American English customarily uses double quotation marks. James Joyce began every paragraph of direct dialog with an em-dash, and used no quotation marks at all, even when he tossed a dialog tag into the middle of a speech paragraph.

Let’s assume you’re going to use quotation marks. Most modern writers do. There are still questions of mechanics and style to be concerned with. It’s possible to make mistakes that will brand your writing amateurish, so it’s wise to be aware of these things.

There are no absolute rules for how to handle dialog, and I probably have nothing original to say on the subject. But for whatever it’s worth, here are a few guidelines that I have found useful.

First, the word “said” is one of those invisible English words, like “the.” You can use it as often as you like. Your readers will never tire of it. Generally, when it comes time to insert a dialog tag, this type of thing will work just fine:

“Have you seen Emily?” Bob said.

Now, you could substitute “asked” for “said” in that sentence, but you don’t need to. The question mark does the heavy lifting. Other words such as “replied,” “objected,” “explained,” “murmured,” “whispered,” and “shouted” are occasionally useful in dialog tags, but if you find yourself using more than one of them for every ten uses of “said,” you’re probably overdoing it.

All of those words, you’ll note, refer specifically either to the type of speech (is it a reply or an objection?) or to the manner of speech (was it whispered or shouted?). Other words that might appear similar must never be used as dialog tags. You cannot “smile” a sentence. You cannot “laugh” a sentence. You cannot “shrug” a sentence. This type of thing, though regrettably common, is absolutely wrong:

“Emily was only half-dressed,” Bob laughed.

It may, of course, be the case that Bob laughed. But that is a separate action, and requires its own sentence. This is acceptable:

“Emily was only half-dressed.” Bob laughed.

The only difference is that a period has replaced the comma, and many readers will fail to notice that distinction. Better, I feel, would be to reverse the order of the two sentences:

Bob laughed. “Emily was only half-dressed.”

This leads us to another general point, which is that an action sentence — what I call stage business — is often preferable to a dialog tag. Rather than litter the page with “said,” “asked,” and so on, consider tagging the speech paragraph with a quasi-random bit of stage business:

Bob shrugged lightly. “Emily was only half-dressed.”

When using this technique, it’s advisable to keep an eye on how often you use each bit of business. More than one shrug, one frown, or one silent stare per conversation would be sloppy writing. In the old days, writers used to use “Bob lighted a cigarette” as a handy all-purpose bit of stage business, and a careless writer could leave poor Bob with three cigarettes burning at once! We don’t have that particular problem anymore, but it’s still wise to be careful.

As a rule of thumb, I try to include either a dialog tag or a bit of stage business that includes the character’s name at least once in every three or four speech paragraphs. There are few things more annoying to the reader than proceeding through a couple of full pages of untagged dialog only to realize that he or she has no idea which of the speakers said which things. Help your readers out. Adding tags can also prevent embarrassing mistakes: You, your editor, or your typesetter might mix things up so that suddenly Bob is telling Emily that he is pregnant.

In a scene with more than two characters, even more dialog tags and bits of stage business are needed. In a scene with only two characters, I may put stage business at the top of the paragraph, before the quoted material, but I will very seldom start the paragraph with a dialog tag. If there are three or more characters, however, I tend to think of dialog tags as being more like what one reads in a stage script. I feel that this type of thing is the least awkward way to tell the reader what’s going on:

Bob said, “Surely you’re not going to go out on the street half-dressed!”

Steve said, “Hey, why shouldn’t she, if she wants to?”

Barbara said, “Here, Emily, let me help you with those buttons.”

This is not deathless dialog — I’m just demonstrating a technique. Better would be to replace some of the tags with stage business (or possibly indirect internal monolog, if you’re using a viewpoint character):

Bob’s mouth fell open. “Surely you’re not going to go out on the street half-dressed!”

Steve laughed. “Hey, why shouldn’t she, if she wants to?”

Barbara decided matters had gone far enough. “Here, Emily, let me help you with those buttons.”

Often, when three or more characters are present, two of them will engage in a two-person dialog while the others listen. In that type of situation, some dialog tags can be omitted, as long as it’s clear to the reader who is saying what to whom. The need for dialog tags is also reduced if one of the characters has a distinctive speech pattern, such as a stammer or a rural accent. But if there are three or more characters present, I prefer to avoid putting a dialog tag or stage business after a speech. By then it’s too late. The point in every case is to let the reader know who is talking. The fact that you can see the movie scene very clearly in your head is no guarantee of anything.

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