He said, she said…

Where’s Ken: I’m currently sitting in the Boston Billiards having a few pints. Guess I should just apologize now for the typos.

For the past two blogs I’ve been talking about common mistakes we see in queries sent to Divertir Publishing. This week I wanted to continue that discussion by talking about dialog. First, let me say that I understand why writers try so hard to include large amounts of dialog in their manuscripts and why they have such difficulty. One of the first pieces of advice for writer’s that I read was that one should always “show, not tell”. The article then went on to say the easiest way to do this was by using dialog. The problem is that the article never connected the dots; how does one use dialog to show and not tell?

This brings me to something I call the levels of dialog. Consider the following exchange:

“I think you’re a very attractive woman,” Ken said half-drunkenly.
“If I had a dollar for every guy who told me that I wouldn’t have to work anymore,” Linda said, rather frustrated.

Let ignore the poor use of adverbs for a moment. This is what I call level 1 dialog and is the way we learn to write in grade school. The problem is that a page filled with short choppy dialog including the word “said” 13 times followed by your favorite adverb isn’t really very interesting and can actually be distracting. At some point authors realize that pages and pages of the above dialog is not very good, and they correctly deduce it is in part because they have overused “said”. Unfortunately, their solution is to break out a thesaurus and start looking for substitutes. The result is what I call level 2 dialog and looks something like this:

“I think you’re a very attractive woman,” Ken offered half-drunkenly.
“If I had a dollar for every guy who told me that I wouldn’t have to work anymore,” Linda sighed, rather frustrated.

Better? Not really. The problem is that, even though I am using dialog, I am still telling and not showing. When an author shows his readers something, the author is inviting the reader to become part of the scene – to be an observer of the action. So how does one do this? That brings us to what I call level 3 dialog; it’s when authors realize that they can identify a speaker without resorting to “he said, she said” and where the author writes so that the reader can visualize the exchange.

As Linda passed Ken sat up straight, feeling the courage his fourth pint had temporarily loaned him. “I think you’re a very attractive woman.” He flashed his best half-drunk smile for effect.
Linda put both hands on her hips, ready to let Ken have it. But something about the smile was far more sincere than she was used to. She sighed as she took her hands from her hips and leaned against the bar. “If I had a dollar for every guy who told me that I wouldn’t have to work anymore.”
”Well then, for the first time in a while I must be right, huh?”
Linda couldn’t help but laugh as she picked up Ken’s phone from the bar and entered her number.

Corny, yes – but I hope the above examples make my point. Let’s hope, if nothing else, your dialog is as amusing…

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2 Comments

Filed under For Authors

2 responses to “He said, she said…

  1. Comprehendible explanation for dialogue. I have struggled with this aspect as a newer fiction writer, since my specialty was non-fiction. Though challenging – getting the dialogue correct is exhilarating.

  2. Pingback: What We Look For… | Divertir Publishing

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