Recently I have been reading a lot of indie books. Since I started writing years ago, I noticed that I have a tendency to look at the mechanics of the book more than I used to. Before, I knew that a particular section had an awkwardness to it. Now I try to find why it is awkward. I’ll give you a little of what I have discovered. Most of it is review. We have learned it before, but sometimes we forget. Let’s start with dialogue.
I recently read a book where most of the dialogue followed a distinct pattern. The character would speak the dialogue, followed by a speaker attribution (he said grimly, he shouted loudly, he whispered softly…), followed by some action (He looked at his watch, His forehead wrinkled in puzzlement, He passed gas), followed by interior monologue ( She wondered if he could really be that dumb, She hoped he wouldn’t eat that last brownie, She wondered why he never asked for a second cup of her coffee…) The problem was that when a character would ask a question, by the time I got through the attribution, the action the monologue, and got to the answer, I’d forgotten what the question was.
The main purpose of speaker attributions is to identify the speaker. If you have just two people speaking, keeping them separate should not be difficult without any attributions. Even with three or more speakers, action by itself should be enough to identify the speaker, or if you are good enough, the way the character speaks can identify the speaker. Trying to convey emotions through speaker attributions is a poor crutch for bad dialogue. The biggest problem in using anything but, he said, for a speaker attribution is the risk that you will bring the reader out that dream-like state where he becomes part of the book instead of just reading a book. For example: If you write, “A priest, a rabbi and a Baptist minister walk into a bar,” he joked. The reader should already know that he is joking. By telling him a second time, he will notice the writing mechanics, and it becomes obvious he is reading a book. The same thing with using –ly adverbs after speaker attributions, if your dialogue is good enough you should not have to tell your reader what emotion the character is feeling. If you have to tell the reader, then tell him by the character’s reaction. Now is the time for the mouth dropping open or the brow wrinkling up. Convey the emotion by the dialogue or the reaction. If the dialogue doesn’t do it, change the dialogue. My novel, In The Sticks, is filled with sarcastic humor and put downs, but I use the word sarcasm exactly twice. You don’t have to tell your reader everything. Make him work. It involves him in the story which pulls him into the story.
I once had a writing teacher who said that the best way to write dialogue is to write just the words the characters are going to say to each other, then add in the speaker attributions, action and interior monologue only as needed to enhance the dialogue.
The second problem I have found is long-winded characters. The average person in normal conversation speaks less than twelve words at a time. I know people in real-life who will sit down and talk for hours without letting anyone else speak, BORING. Most people I know try to avoid these people. Same way with characters. Who looks at a book with pages of words with no white space to break it up and feels enthusiastic about reading it? Break your conversations into short sections, a back and forth exchange.
Every now and then there is no way of getting around having a character make a long speech. In my novel I had a character tell a story about how he got out of a biker gang. I could not break it up with a back and forth exchange. It just wouldn’t work. Instead I gave the character a six-pack of beer. The beer not only gave me a way to break up the story by having the character stop now and then to drink it, but by having him guzzle it down, I showed the reader the emotional frame of mind of the character and the fear he still had of the biker gang. I also got to put in a slurred speech and a staggering walk to show his degree of drunkenness without actually having to tell the reader he was drunk. Again making the reader work to involve him.
Anyway, this is just my opinion, and I am the world’s leading authority on my opinion. You are allowed to disagree. In fact, if you do disagree, I would like to hear from you.
Joel Jurrens author of In The Sticks