Laughing Our Words & Other Dialogue Don’ts (The Self-Editing Guide Part 8)

Dialogue is an important thing in story-telling. How your character interacts with their friends, family, and even complete strangers tells a lot about his or her personality and conveys information that might not be revealed otherwise. How you describe that dialogue has a huge impact on your audience’s experience while reading your novel. So should you replace your dialogue tags with descriptive words and throw in a few adverbs? Not exactly. If you want to truly immerse your readers in your story, you’re better off doing the exact opposite.

Laughing Our Words & Other Dialogue Don'ts

I like to write in deep point-of-view, which means my goal is to make the words fall away. I don’t just want the readers to see the story unfold before their eyes, I want them to become part of the story. I want them to be in the middle of the action, not just watching from the sidelines. I want them to become the main character—to fight the battle and feel the pain as the sword goes in. So when I’m writing dialogue, any reminders that my audience is reading a story has to go.

Dialogue tags might be one of the most redundant aspects of writing. You add quotations around the spoken passage, and then you end it with he said or something similar to state who is speaking. But there are better ways to clarify this. Here are a couple examples of using a dialogue tag and how to get away with removing it.

“How are you feeling today?” Sarah asked. 

How are you feeling today?” Sarah stepped closer and pressed her hand to my forehead. 

The first one is a classic example of a dialogue tag. The second one removes the uneccessary phrase, clarifies who is speaking by the action that takes place, and shows the characters interacting in other ways as well. The second part of sentence two eliminates the need for tagging and that’s a good thing. Since it is a classic example, anything remotely close to she said or he asked tends to get skimmed over by readers. They’ve seen it more than enough in other novels. In this way, you’re still offering valuable content to your audience while keeping them from being confused on who is speaking.

Some people like to include both in their writing:

“How are you feeling today?” Sarah asked, stepping closer and pressing her hand to my forehead.

But this is even more redundant, since it can be reworded like the second example where the action alone states who is speaking. And, as we covered in the last article, -ING verbs slow down the narrative. If this is supposed to be a fast-paced scene, you’re going to want to drop those -ING verbs and keep the sentences direct and to the point.

So, again, it’s best to just use an action tag to clarify who is speaking. However, if the characters are speaking for a long period of time, you won’t be able to come up with an action for every line—and you shouldn’t try. You need to let the characters’ words take the spotlight in this scenario. That means most times the dialogue needs to stand alone. If there are only two people speaking, then character one will speak first, then character two, and then it starts over. In this case, you can go a few lines without reiterating who is speaking. The reader will have no problem keeping up, as long as it isn’t too drastic of a gap. A brief action tag after a few exchanges can keep the reader on track and immersed in your story. However, if they have to go back to the beginning of the conversation and start over just to figure out who is speaking toward the end, you’ve lost the intended effect. So don’t go overboard. As I often say, a healthy balance is key.

Another issue I see often is when writers choose to use dialogue tags and they use them incorrectly.

“That was funny,” Sarah laughed.

This is actually an action tag formatted wrong. NOT a dialogue tag. However, it is set up as if laugh is replacing said. That means Sarah is laughing out the phrase, “That was funny.” This happens often with various words such as laughed, sighed, yawned, coughed, cried, etc. This is the correct way to write it:

“That was funny.” Sarah laughed. 

In this example, Sarah speaks, and then she laughs. Makes sense, right? Often times it’s written in an even less plausible way:

“That was funny,” Sarah rolled her eyes. 

There is no doubt about it—this is an action tag. NOT a dialogue tag. You can’t roll your eyes into a series of words—that I’m aware of—so this sentence needs to be reworded as this:

“That was funny.” Sarah rolled her eyes. 

The difference is in whether you separate the text with a comma or a period. Keep this in mind when reading over your work and train yourself to take notice how you write your dialogue. The change in meaning can be tremendous, and it’s best to know exactly what effect your writing has on readers when you’re trying to write convincing dialogue. Incorporate these tips into your story and you will have a better chance at immersing your readers and creating realistic character interactions.


Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strongwilled—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.

You can follow her by clicking the links below. 

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