Feb 14, 2011

Dialogue: Get the Author Out of There

In modern fiction, the author should remain invisible. This is one reason why dialogue tags should be avoided whenever possible. There are only two tags that are, in essence, invisible: said and asked. But if they're overused, even those flash out at the reader and disrupt the flow of your work.

The only time you really need to modify “said” or “asked” with an adverb is when the dialogue itself doesn’t contain enough information to convey the proper emotion. If you're writing dialogue that's strong enough and clear enough, the dialogue can do its own work.

Take a look at this example:

"Keep your filthy mouth shut," she said.

With that statement, the author certainly doesn’t need to say, "she said angrily" or "she shouted,” or "she said in disgust." None of those are necessary. On the other hand, you might need to give the reader a little help if you write something like this:

"Keep your filthy mouth shut," she whispered as she wrapped her arms around his neck.

Here you need more because you’re actually contradicting the dialogue with the character's actions.

If the character truly hates someone, and you've done a good job of setting up the moment, then "I hate you!" doesn't need a lot of explanation. "I hate you!" she moaned as she wrapped her legs around his waist, is a completely different story.

When you start adding tags and adjectives where you don't need them, you're actually practicing a form of author intrusion. Author intrusion is one of the deadliest things to fiction since each time you use it, you make it difficult for the reader to forget that you’re there. When you become apparent to the reader, she remembers that she's not actually in the scene, in the moment with the characters. When that happens, you weaken your scenes and weaken reader identification with the characters.

Sadly, the overuse of dialogue tags is something many of us learned in school. Teachers without any real writing skills told us we needed to use the cheap and easy method for conveying emotion. It’s something most of us have to un-teach ourselves to become successful fiction writers.

The problem with excessive use of tags -- “I’m afraid the door is locked,” the heiress said alarmingly -- is that they constantly distract the reader from the story.

Consider this weak example:

“Go away,” she shouted angrily. “You made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” She added the last sadly.

Is there anything in that example that pulls you into the moment? Chances are, there isn’t. As the author, I am more visible than either of the characters. The character who is speaking is only mildly visible, and we don't even spare the person she's speaking to a thought.

To add depth, surround the dialogue with emotion. Give it the quality of something else going on.

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. “Go away! You made your choice, now live with it. I know I will. I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

Surround it with action -- Draw it out. Give your characters props.

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. She slammed the book onto the desk and whirled back to face him. “Go away! You made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” At the devastated look on his face, her anger evaporated and the pity she’d been trying so hard to fight replaced it. She turned away so she wouldn’t have to see his expression and added, “I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

This paragraph is doing double and even triple duty now. Even better, the author is no longer visible in that paragraph. Now the reader can focus completely on Nancy (who finally has a name) and the man she's talking to.

Can you do anything else with it to make it any stronger? Depending on where it falls in the story....

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. She slammed the book onto the desk and whirled back to face him. “Go away! I should have known better than to trust you. You’re no better than my father was. Well, you made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” At the devastated look on his face, her anger evaporated and the pity she’d been trying so hard to fight replaced it. She turned away so she wouldn’t have to see his expression and added, “I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

Let the dialogue help to set the surroundings.

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. She slammed the book onto the desk and whirled back to face him. “Go away! I should have known better than to trust you. You’re no better than my father was. Well, you made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” At the devastated look on his face, her anger evaporated and the pity she’d been trying so hard to fight replaced it. She turned away so she wouldn’t have to see his expression. When he made no move to leave, she gestured toward the window. “The storm’s getting worse by the minute. If you don’t get out of here now, you’ll never get through the pass and I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

If you find yourself using frequent tags and logs of adjectives, then practice writing without them. Practice finding ways to convey emotion without having to tell the reader what the character is feeling. Your dialogue, and your narrative, will be stronger as a result.

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