Twit-Tip: “That’s what she said!” Sleepyvalentina Expounds on Dialogue

Since my own writing is so dialogue-heavy, it tends to be the first thing I notice when I read. It also tends to be the area in which I receive the most questions when I beta. Getting the punctuation right is easy. Ultimately, it comes down to voice.

Here are the basic rules:

Dialogue tags, also called attributions, are typically part of the same sentence as what is being spoken.

Example:
“Hello, Isabella,” he says.

If the verb within the attribution isn’t something that can be done with one’s vocal chords, it’s a beat, not a tag. Beats get their own sentences.

Examples:
“Am I?” He shakes his head.
Alice pokes my arm. “It’s your turn.”

When there’s a beat, generally a tag isn’t necessary.

Example:
Alice pokes my arm and says, “It’s your turn.”

It reads a bit awkwardly, no? Using an attribution alongside a beat provides no additional information and adds unnecessary words—something which only distracts readers from the story thus weakening the writing. Writing concisely brings focus to the words that matter. When important details are no longer in competition with superfluous ones, they stand out more.

Example:
Jesus wept.
(John 11:35)

Avoiding “said” bookisms

Remember how your teachers told you the mark of a good writer was varying word choice in dialogue tags? They lied. This is one instance in which it’s better to be redundant. Generally, one should stick with with said and asked.

“But but but!” you yell. “If I use ‘say’, readers won’t know I’m raising my voice.”

Actually, they would—the exclamation point tells them everything they need to know. Words like yell in attributions are known as said bookisms. Though using them in tags is not technically incorrect, doing so makes one’s writing seem amateurish. Again, less is more. The word said is invisible. Readers gloss over it, focusing instead on the dialogue itself—which is exactly what we want them to do. If how something is said is so important, omit the tag and use a beat.

“I know I’ll die of cancer like my mother,” she chokes out.

It reads awkwardly, and it’s a classic example of telling and not showing.

“I know I’ll die of cancer like my mother…” Her voice breaks. She takes a deep breath, then swallows with such force the muscles in her throat flex.

I’m not saying you should never use verbs other than said in dialogue tags. A well-placed said bookism can really get readers’ attention. Reserve them for when they are truly needed.

Let Us Not Forget Tom Swiftly

And no, I’m not talking about some guy I screwed who came too quickly.

The Tom Swift book series is infamous for formulaic dialogue tags involving a said bookism followed by an adverb. A Tom Swiftly (also know as a Tom Swifty) is any such attribution containing a pun.

“We must hurry,” said Tom swiftly.

Okay, so that one is indeed ridiculous. But if we avoid said bookisms, don’t we need adverbs to indicate how the dialogue was said?

You don’t.

Any of the writers for whom I beta will tell you I mark up almost every dialogue tag containing an adverb. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine—not because they read as formulaic (though they do) but because they tell without showing. Oh, I admit I did this all over Art After 5—it’s a huge part of why reading my early fic makes me cringe.

He was so obviously nervous, I couldn’t help but tease him.
“So, come here often?” I asked playfully.

The current edit looks like this:

His nervousness was endearing.
The next thing I knew, I was teasing him. “Come here often?”

Fewer words, yes. But they read a little more easily and say a little bit more.

Again, I’m not saying all adverbs are evil. But like said bookisms and my five-inch-high stilettos that crunch my baby toes, they’re best left for special occasions.

Trust me on this. I learned it the hard way.

2 Responses to Twit-Tip: “That’s what she said!” Sleepyvalentina Expounds on Dialogue

  1. Anne Forlines says:

    Great post. Can we make it required reading?

    • Fionafresh1 says:

      This is such good advice I am so glad that Detka sent it to me….Im excited to go back and put it in use. thank you!

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