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Dialogue question


Graeme

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I've recently seen a comment that most of the time dialogue should stand by itself. However, I find that the way something is said is often as important as the words themselves.

"He used to be my boyfriend," Paul said.

To me, that sentence is lacking. I don't know enough to be able to picture it.

"He used to be my boyfriend," Paul growled.

"He used to be my boyfriend," Paul sighed.

"He used to be my boyfriend," Paul said nonchalantly.

"He used to be my boyfriend," Paul said warningly.

These say a lot more to me than the original. The first shows he's still angry about it. The second shows a wistfulness about the situation. The third indicates Paul is over it. The fourth indicates that maybe Paul is planning on getting is ex-boyfriend back, or possibly that the ex is someone to be avoided.

Now, I do this a lot in my writing. Is this just a question of style, or am I going overboard with trying to convey the emotion and feeling that goes with the words?

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Is this just a question of style, or am I going overboard with trying to convey the emotion and feeling that goes with the words?

The sentence doesn't have to be "lacking" if it works in context with the paragraphs that came before it. Almost every writing book I've ever read has stressed the importance of avoiding adverbs and adjectives except when absolutely necessary. I believe it's only correct to use an adverb (like "nonchalantly") if for some reason the reader can't understand the real meaning of the dialog in context.

A good example of that would be if the person speaking is being ironic or sarcastic. Take this one:

"Hey, nice dress."

In that case, we don't necessarily know what the person speaking really means. Is it really a nice dress? Is he cracking a joke? Is he insulting the dress?

I think it's better to let the actions dictate the sentence's meaning. For example, in this case, we could have the person pause, then burst out laughing. Now we know what he or she meant, without any adjectives. I think action is stronger than an adverb. And many writing books stress that many amateur writers use adverbs and adjectives to prop up weak sentences. Make the sentences stronger, and you won't need to use nearly as many modifiers.

BTW, I strongly object to people who try to use certain actions as verbs. For example:

"He used to be my boyfriend," Paul sighed.

Uh-uh. You can't "sigh" dialog. You also can't laugh dialog or smile dialog, either. On the other hand, you could say:

"He used to be my boyfriend," Paul said, then sighed and looked away.

and that works fine. You could also describe the character's physical actions, like if he stammers, or nervously picks at something on his shirt, or if a long silence follows after this dialog, and the other character realizes (through thought or an internal monologue) what the words imply. I think to do much more than this can put you on the road to excess.

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Thanks for the comments. I've read the same thing about the use of adverbs, but I've using them heavily anyway because otherwise the dialogue feels weak to me.

I also appreciate what you said about the use an action as a verb. However, I believe that writing is generally stronger if the same feeling can be conveyed with fewer words. I don't believe anyone would fail to understand what occured. I liked your alternative, and if this was a "key" statement, I'd probably use it. However, if it was part of a larger piece, the more concise version would be less disruptive.

I will admit that I still have a lot to learn, which is why I asked the question and why I'm continuing the discussion. I want to understand why the use of adverbs and adjectives should be avoided unless necessary, so I can then use them intelligently.

Graeme

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The point that dialogue should stand on its own is that the words should convey, as much as possible, what the speaker feels without extra narrative prose. That doesn't mean emotional cues should be omitted entirely. They are valuable, especially if they convey additional information beyond what is clear in the dialogue.

It should be clear from the wording which character is speaking, so as to avoid too-frequent "John said" and "Jane said" cues. However, every few lines, it is necessary to put cues in that specify the speaker, to keep from getting the reader confused and lost among disembodied, anonymous talking heads.

Avoid getting too frequent or too clever with verbs other than "said," though. The verb, "said," is neutral, so that the reader hardly notices it. If Paul gesticulated, for instance, then I begin to wonder about him and the author. Should a writer avoid other words altogether? No, it's just a guideline.

Please don't use "ejaculated" for anything except a male orgasm, either. Technically, it may mean "he said excitedly," but that won't be the first thing the reader thinks of when he sees the word.

There's nothing wrong with adjectives or adverbs. It is only a problem when they are overused; such as when they are piled together too much.

Regarding

"He used to be my boyfriend," Paul sighed.

Or

"He used to be my boyfriend," Paul sighed and looked away.

Most people will interpret that Paul sighed (and then looked away) after he says, "boyfriend," rather than as though he sighs all the way through the line. If he does sigh continuously, that is an important thing to note about his character: he's (a) prone to drama, or (b) extremely gloomy or wistful, or © quite out of breath, I'd think.

The goal? Pack as much information into as few words as possible, but don't get hung up on Rules. When writing, they are usually Guidelines, in order to accommodate different styles, speeds, emotions, and characterizations.

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Please don't use "ejaculated" for anything except a male orgasm, either. Technically, it may mean "he said excitedly," but that won't be the first thing the reader thinks of when he sees the word.

How about this line of dialogue: :walk:

"I'm coming!" Ben ejaculated.

I hate all that complex dialogue attribution. :cussing: I know I used to do it when I started writing but now I try to stick to 'he said, she said' with a few minor variations.

Someone needs to steal Graeme's adverb box.:violent2: He clearly can't be trusted to leave it alone, like a happy little kid with his hand down his pants.

Kisses...

TR

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I use adverbs... so take me out and hang me in the town square as an example of what NOT to do!

I don't think we're saying never use adverbs. It's more a question of knowing when to use them, and when to avoid them -- particularly when you're using them as a crutch to prop up a weak sentence or problematic dialog.

Look at the work of your favorite authors, and note how they use adverbs and other modifiers. Stephen King swears that when he rewrites and edits one of his own 1st draft manuscripts, a lot of what he cuts out are unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.

So it's a question of moderation, that's all. Try to avoid excessively using adverbs and adjectives. [Oops -- there's an adverb right there!]

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Yes, even a very neutral word like 'said' can be overused...though he's wildly successful commercially, one of the things that drives me barking mad about Michael Crichton's work is that he attributes nearly every line of dialogue. Very cumbersome, not reader friendly (in that it makes me believe that he believes that his readers are idiots) and quite distracting.

cheers!

aj

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Yes, even a very neutral word like 'said' can be overused... though he's wildly successful commercially, one of the things that drives me barking mad about Michael Crichton's work is that he attributes nearly every line of dialogue.

I agree, Crichton is a frustrating writer to observe. I think he's capable of some really good work, and then once in awhile he goes and writes dull, ponderous crap that gets bad reviews and modest sales. His new one (the one that rakes environmentalists over the coals) isn't doing too well.

I think there's a way to subconciously attribute dialog in context, and make it clear who's talking in a scene just by what's said and how it's said. I discovered when writing Angel that the trick is when you have a scene with more than two or three people. Then, you wind up having to attribute at least the new person speaking, then make it clear what's happening as the dialog bounces around, almost like a multi-player ping-pong match.

The other way to do it is find a way to distinguish the way each character speaks and make them express themselves differently. You can do this with accents, choice of words, attitudes... there's a treasure-trove of tricks to choose from. Once you do that, you can bop back and forth between at least three or four people, and not necessarily have to attribute every sentence. I personally like to avoid attribution, and instead express it with attitude. For example, one character glares at the other, or points to him, then the dialog follows. No "he spat," no "he exploded," not even "he said." Just the dialog can work, as long as it's crystal-clear who's saying what.

On the other hand: "he said" can be a beautiful, simple phrase that works. Not everything has to be fancy or profound. Sometimes, simple is best. Look at Ernest Hemingway's work; there's some beautifully-written stuff there. There's a way to balance doing it too much, and doing it poorly.

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Is this just a question of style, or am I going overboard with trying to convey the emotion and feeling that goes with the words?

The sentence doesn't have to be "lacking" if it works in context with the paragraphs that came before it. Almost every writing book I've ever read has stressed the importance of avoiding adverbs and adjectives except when absolutely necessary. I believe it's only correct to use an adverb (like "nonchalantly") if for some reason the reader can't understand the real meaning of the dialog in context.

A good example of that would be if the person speaking is being ironic or sarcastic. Take this one:

"Hey, nice dress."

In that case, we don't necessarily know what the person speaking really means. Is it really a nice dress? Is he cracking a joke? Is he insulting the dress?

I think it's better to let the actions dictate the sentence's meaning. For example, in this case, we could have the person pause, then burst out laughing. Now we know what he or she meant, without any adjectives. I think action is stronger than an adverb.

You're confusing categories. An adverb is a category of speech or grammar, action isn't. You can't compare apples and oranges like this. I don't see any reason not to qualify verbs with adverbs. The objection to adjectives and adverbs seems without foundation to me. Excess is excess whether it's in the use of specific parts of speech or in anything else.

I agree that context is all but even relying on context can be clumsy - if we use context cleverly then then we don't have to have people even pause or burst out laughing. What readers know of the characters and the story can be relied upon to cue them to irony or sarcasm.

And many writing books stress that many amateur writers use adverbs and adjectives to prop up weak sentences. Make the sentences stronger, and you won't need to use nearly as many modifiers.

The only convincing examples of eliminating adverbs (other than obvious purple excess) I've seen have been of expository prose not narrative. In expository prose the aim is to be explicit and in some cases adverbs undermine this - albeit indirectly. In narrative the writing - the words can themselves be part of the point. Prose narrative may not be poetry but it can still legitimately aim for effect and "wordiness" is not of itself a failing. Lean, mean, spare Hemmingwayesque (except he wasn't) narrative style isn't the only writing worth reading.

BTW, I strongly object to people who try to use certain actions as verbs. For example:

"He used to be my boyfriend," Paul sighed.

Uh-uh. You can't "sigh" dialog. You also can't laugh dialog or smile dialog, either. On the other hand, you could say:

"He used to be my boyfriend," Paul said, then sighed and looked away.

You can't use an action as a verb. An action is not a part of speech and a verb is. Verbs often denote actions (as in your example - the act of "sighing" is an action and to sigh is a verb, each and every time it's used). I don't understand the animus here either. In the first example it seems to me that the use of sigh in this way conveys something about the expression, the tone of voice used to deliver the line of dialogue. In the second example one action - speaking a sentence - is followed by another: sighing. These sentences don't convey the same thing. Oddly, if we were to obey the implicit stricture here we'd probably end up using a lot more adverbs! Instead of

"I love you!" he sang out.

We'd have

"I love you!" he said liltingly (or musically or whatever).

I just don't buy the idea that you can't sigh dialogue - creative writing is partly about using language in other than ordinary ways. This restriction you propose would damn half the published authors in print to retrospective editing out of all those "...he sighed...he laughed...he crieds.

and that works fine. You could also describe the character's physical actions, like if he stammers, or nervously picks at something on his shirt, or if a long silence follows after this dialog, and the other character realizes (through thought or an internal monologue) what the words imply. I think to do much more than this can put you on the road to excess.

I don't see much evidence of excess as a problem. There are much more prevalent writing flaws. Two have been on my mind recently because they littered almost every page of an on-line story I was enjoying.

1 The use of past tense modals (could, should, would) with of instead of have. I should of warned him for I should have warned him makes my teeth ache. It's a back formation and I can see why it happens but it has to stop. The phrase should of just doesn't mean anything.

2 The inability to render dialogue convincingly. The story I have in mind is peopled by otherwise quite ordinary characters who are incapable of negative contraction. Thus they never say don't want to go to the mall, Bro but much more properly (and much less credibly (oh Lord, two adverbs so close together!)) they declare (or maybe declaim) do not want to go to the mall, Bro. Needless to say they don't indulge in wanna, gonna, shoulda or anyother quite ordinary contraction either. Nobody speaks like this. It's not proper it's unbelievable - especially when your characters are marijuana smoking, skateboarding, teenage sex fiends. Do not fuck me without a condom, dude. I don't think so.

Long live adverbs! Up with sighing and warbling! Down with the tyrrany of style manuals!

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Do not fuck me without a condom, dude. I don't think so.

Funny, I just used that line last night. :dark1: Horniness does not preclude prawpah English.

TR

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You're confusing categories. An adverb is a category of speech or grammar, action isn't.

Where I come from, an Adverb is a simply word that modifies a verb. That's all. Nothing more or less than that. (I just checked, and funny enough, the dictionary says the same thing.)

I don't consider an Adverb to be a category of anything. "Action," however, is a category, by the loose definition that it's a type of writing or a situation. You have an "action scene" or "action dialog," each describing a situation where something is being propelled forward at a faster-than-normal rate, maybe to heighten tension or suspense. But that's a pedantic argument beyond the original point, which is simply that many amateur writers use too many adverbs and adjectives.

Long live adverbs! Up with sighing and warbling! Down with the tyrrany of style manuals!

Let's agree to disagree. I think there's a way to use style manuals in a way that can make writing better, but at the same time, I'm the last guy to say you must adhere to them 100% of the time, for every situation. Sometimes, rules are made to be broken. But I also think it's a very good idea to know the rules first before you break them.

And by the way: the word is "tyranny."

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While I was at Borders tonight I picked up a book:

Dialogue: techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue by Gloria Kempton.

It's by Writer's Digest Books and was published in 2004.

When I finish it, I'll write a review for it and let you guys know what I think about it.

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I believe you mean 'tyranny'.

I'm a victim of malfunctioning cut & paste!

Yeah, I ran that through the dictionary just to be sure, but pasted the wrong word back. Mea culpa!

Never underestimate the value of good editing...

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Some high school journalism teachers used to have students list as many synonyms for "said" as they can--stated, shouted, etc. When students later got jobs at large newspapers, they were told only to use "said."

The reason is this: "said" is unobtrusive. Readers tend to put it in the background and read what the person quoted actually, well, said.

I think the same rule should apply to creative writing. "Said" is unobtrusive, like "the," or "and," or "then." Attention is not drawn from what is said. I read a story recently in which there were many uses of "spat." He spat; she spat. The usage became annoying after a while.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules on this, but simplicity is usually best. Besides, one can write something like this: "'She jumped and fell into the tub.' He laughed." Two sentences, but the same information is transmitted.

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I think the same rule should apply to creative writing. "Said" is unobtrusive, like "the," or "and," or "then." Attention is not drawn from what is said.

I agree to a point. But I think it's also fair to occasionally stir things up by having characters explode, yell, bellow, whisper, mutter, or otherwise recite dialog in a different way. I think this is particularly important when the emotions of one or more of the characters radically change, to show that there's something important has happened.

However: like adverbs, I think alternating forms of "said" has to be done carefully and not willy-nilly. And sometimes, omitting "he said" works, too, with just the bare dialog alone, as long as it's clear which characters are speaking.

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  • 10 months later...

I'm just bumping a few threads to bring them back....

I'll also just add that I'm now trying to steer clear of adverbs as much as possible, unlike what I said when this thread was originally started. I'll leave it to others to decide if I've seen the light, or converted to the dark side....

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