The verbose help guide: dialogue

I told Julia Kyle that I’d been reading a bunch of self-published and indie queer ebooks, most of which I didn’t dislike but did leave me in want of books about queer, trans and non-binary leads with mainstream-standard (good mainstream-standard, because we can all point to any number of awfully-written mainstream-published novels) copyediting and/or structural editing. I’m not even talking content, here (the amount of women, the handling of queer relationships, the fact non-binary people don’t exist, the way authors slept through Year 12 Biology because they don’t understand how a fever works, the repeated failure to write horses in anything approaching a correct fashion). I’m talking the nuts and bolts of sentence construction and ebook design. I’m talking the things I’d love to never see in a book, the things I’m editor enough that I can’t unsee or ignore, the fiction-writing basics that are in fact not-basic enough they slip past even attentive and edited self-published and indie writers.

Julia made the mistake of asking me if I’d write a post on these things: what to do, what not to do, how to avoid it.

I may have cackled. A lot. And responded with enthusiasm enough she quoted me on Tumblr. Someone wants me to talk about all the things running through my head every time I crack open a book? Someone has given me permission to get on my editorial high horse? Fuck and yes, mate.

I don’t believe that not writing well means one shouldn’t write or be published. I don’t believe that anyone must do all the things I’m about to discuss to be a good author, a decent author or an author. I don’t believe in knocking or trashing writers because their works are not up to my preferred standard. I’m also well aware that many people aren’t going to notice the things I talk about or feel any pressing need to worry about them. That’s fine. I know I’m a fucking snob. Don’t let skill or ability stop you from being creative, my readers. Say the words you have to say. If you can’t afford an editor, don’t worry about it: it’s more important that you get your words out there. Just know that I have a limit of structural/grammatical/design issues I’m willing to tolerate before I stop reading your words, and that may be something you want to take seriously. People don’t notice functional-awesome writing or design, but the possession of those things does keep them reading. I think, especially for minorities, that’s something we can’t afford to discard lightly. Don’t we want our readers to follow us on our much-needed journeys?

Sure, we can assume that minorities are willing to put up with a lot of failure for awesome queer ladies in fantasy novels. I know I am. I have a bunch of authors whose writing isn’t up to my preferred standard on a technical level but who create works I buy and enjoy anyway because they are providing much-needed content – amazing hero narratives about minority heroes. But shouldn’t our readers, starved for queer, trans and non-binary leads in fantasy novels, get to have those adventures as well as good writing? Mainstream readers about mainstream heroes get those things packaged in the one cover. I refuse to believe I deserve less than a cishet dude fantasy reader because there are fewer writers writing for me.

I’m not going to stand here and pretend my writing is flawless (it’s not) or I know everything (I don’t) or I’m some expert, accomplished self-published author (the hell no). My ability to perceive, nitpick and edit is always going to far outstrip my ability to write. However, I am an observant, detail-orientated snob who has some editorial experience and overthinks everything, so I am going to tell you the changes I want to see in the books I read.

General note: there is no universality in editing. Every editor will firmly believe that their way is the right way, a way shared in its entirety by exactly no other editor. Likewise, I am Australian, and you had better believe that makes a subtle influence on my approach to writing, grammar and style. Feel free to take anything I say with a pinch of salt if you feel that it is in no way useful to you. Also, these posts have been written on the assumption that the reader knows how to punctuate dialogue or use commas correctly most of the time: they’re for authors who are writing at a level that is publishable but want to push the technical side of their craft to another level.

Now. Dialogue.

Speech tags

We have two different kinds of speech tags. We have the ones you wear every day to work, practical and serviceable: ‘said’ and ‘asked’. We also have the speech tags you wear on special occasions, speech tags in ball gowns and black tie: ‘exclaimed’, ‘shouted’, ‘whispered’, ‘murmured’, ‘shrieked’ – in fact, anything that is not ‘asked’ or ‘said’.

(Note: some editors like ‘replied’ as a common speech tag; I hate it because I think the text, if the dialogue is set out correctly, makes the reply status obvious. Some editors think it’s a crime to have a question followed by ‘said’ instead of ‘asked’; I think it doesn’t matter because the question mark makes the status of asking obvious. Yes, I said there’s no universality.)

Now, imagine going to work every day in a ball gown, surrounded by people in overalls: you’re going to stand out, but not in a good way. This is the effect you create when you burden a text with fancy black-tie speech tags:

“You’d look so sexy in that kimono,” Abe murmurs.

“Yukata,” Steve corrects. “Dude, she’s not going to gift me her fucking kimono. Although I can’t believe she even sent—”

“Steve,” Abe hisses. He blinks, snatches the parcel and folds the paper so it covers all sight of the floral-print cotton. “Quiet down!”

“Why?” Steve hollers. “You think I care if Swanston hears us?”

“Your dad is just over there,” Abe whispers. “Isn’t it his mother’s?”

Yes, this example is barren of the things that make writing interesting, but this is the kind of writing I see that most relies on ‘interesting’ speech tags. I see this example all the time. It is a way around a lack of development in setting, character, movement, description and emotion. What are those speech tags actually doing, other than indicating the speaker and suggesting melodrama? This prose is cluttered with unnecessary ballgowns swanning around a warehouse, ballgowns that don’t hide the fact we don’t get to see much of the character wearing said gown or the warehouse. Readers don’t notice ‘said’ and ‘asked’, but alert readers will roll their eyes at every ridiculous speech tag, and that’s not the effect you want – especially when those words, used on their own, add nothing to the narrative that can’t be stated or implied in more evocative ways:

Abe looks up and down the road before he lowers his voice, his eyes fixed on the parcel in Steve’s hands. “You’d look so sexy in that kimono.”

“Yukata.” Steve shrugs as though he has been told every day of his life that he was born to don female clothing. “Dude, she’s not going to gift me her fucking kimono. Although I can’t believe she even sent—”

A bell rings just as someone passes through the shop door across the way. Abe blinks, snatches the parcel and folds the paper so it covers all sight of the floral-print cotton. “Steve. Quiet down!”

“Why?” Steve’s voice grows louder with every syllable. “You think I care if Swanston hears us?”

“Your dad is just over there,” Abe says. He gulps at an inexplicable tightness in his throat and tries his hardest to look as though he’s not avoiding Aki Nakamura. “Isn’t it his mother’s?”

I’d tolerate the leaving of ‘whispers’ in the last line, although I don’t think it’s necessary given the change in the first. We know Abe isn’t yelling.

Remember, too, that ‘yelled’ and similar words may not even need to exist given the action that accompanies the dialogue:

“Get out of the fucking way!” Steve yells as he tears down Main after the tourists.

It works, I suppose. As long as we don’t overdo it. Or we could try the same sentiment with fewer words, given that the exclamation mark and the word use does a suitable impression of someone yelling or screaming:

Steve tears down Main after the tourists. “Get out of the fucking way!”

Don’t get me wrong: you can use these speech tags. You shouldn’t have someone ‘saying’ if they are in fact whispering. Just use them for deliberate emphasis when they have something important to say about your character and how they are speaking. ‘Whispered’ is a powerful word, as is the first glimpse of a ballgown-wearing dude in any given warehouse; don’t strip such words of their power by overuse. If your character whispers every third sentence, what kind of gravitas does it give your character when you really want the reader to sit up and take note of how they’re speaking?

Nobody notices ‘said’ even if you use it ten times on two pages. Yes, your high school teachers may have said otherwise, but high school teachers are all about extending your vocabulary. Yes, the children’s and YA books you read may have used a great variety of speech tags (I once read a Sweet Valley Twins book and counted upwards of fifty different speech tags: do you want me reading solely to count speech tags?) but, again, the intent is to extend the reader’s vocabulary. There must be something vaguely educational about Jessica Wakefield’s schemes, after all. ‘Said’ is a good, serviceable, useful word that doesn’t drag the reader out of the story. Embrace it.

Faux-speech tags

Speech tags describe how a character says their dialogue.

‘Smiled’ and ‘laughed’ are not speech tags. They do not describe how the words are spoken. Can you smile a word? No. Can you laugh a word? Try it. Try it right now. Yeah, I thought so. Don’t use these words as speech tags if you don’t want to drag your reader out of the narrative while they try to smile or laugh the dialogue you just wrote. Don’t think your readers won’t do this. Admittedly, maybe your readers aren’t contrary snobs the way I am, but you bet I am the smug arsehole who tries to smile your dialogue. This isn’t the effect you want.

Want to use ‘laughed’ or ‘smiled’ alongside your dialogue? Treat them as actions: separate sentences.

Steve grins. “I think we need to go shopping.”

‘Mused’, ‘quipped’ and ‘pondered’ are problematic in that they don’t describe how a character speaks. What they do, however, is tell the reader what it is the character is saying, something that should be plenty obvious from the dialogue itself:

Some of the many speech tags we should reconsider using.

Some of the many speech tags we should reconsider using.

“I wonder what Mum made for tea,” Steve muses. “Sukiyaki? Roast? Fish and chips on the way home from work?”

You know that ‘show, don’t tell’ cliche? This is the sort of thing it’s about. Show us that your character is musing by having them say something that is a musing sort of comment. Don’t tell us they’re musing. Readers are smart people. They don’t need to be told. In fact, they generally dislike the idea that they need to be told something they already know.

This kind of speech tag can be and should be omitted and replaced with an action, a description or an observation, something that broadens the scene and the character far more than a speech tag that only designates the speaker and gives us information we already know:

“I wonder what Mum made for tea.” Steve stands on his toes to survey the top shelf of Abe’s pantry. Two dust bunnies and a ladle. Fucking vampires. “Sukiyaki? Roast? Fish and chips on the way home from work?”

Isn’t that far more interesting to read? Sure, the top example has less words, but there’s no economy of words in using one extra word to say what is known or implicit.

So-called speech tags like ‘she wanted to know’ are never necessary. Never. They are, I believe, proof that Satan exists. They are not good writing. Let me give you an example:

“Why the fuck do you treat your family like shit?” Steve wants to know.

The only thing that phrase is doing, in that sentence, is telling us that Steve’s the speaker. We know he wants to know, or why else is he asking the question? You could give the same information to the reader in a less statement-of-the-obvious way:

“Why the fuck do you treat your family like shit?” Steve asks.

See, less words, same information! Or you can go one better and make the speech tag do more work than indicate the speaker:

“Why the fuck do you treat your family like shit?” Steve asks as he straddles the chair opposite Great-Aunty Lizzie.

Or you can go several better and nix the speech tag by replacing it with an action that indicates the speaker by dint of sharing the same paragraph:

Steve sighs, rolls his eyes and straddles the chair opposite Great-Aunty Lizzie. “Why the fuck do you treat your family like shit?”

See how we’re getting progressively more interesting by showing movement, emotion and character? We know Steve is some measure of annoyed or frustrated, given to displaying his emotions via expression, and has a tendency to straddle chairs. We know he’s the kind of person who speaks things as he sees it and doesn’t care if he swears in front of Great-Aunty Lizzie. I don’t have to tell you any of that, and I do provide something with a better chance of keeping your attention.Win/win all around.

Setting out dialogue

One speaker per paragraph. Most authors who are published know this. However, there is a secondary rule: one consecutive paragraph for the same speaker (character taking action).

What do I mean? Well, works laid out like this, especially if the author isn’t capable of writing distinct dialogue for each character such that actions and speech tags aren’t required to identify who is speaking, especially if tags and identifiers happen late in the second paragraph if at all, are very confusing:

“You are an arrogant, dominating, controlling, controlling…” Steve pauses before he slams his fist against the table and yells with enough force to surely startle Abe’s neighbours. “How dare you? How fucking dare you come in here with your racism and your list of eligible vampire ladies and decide, not knowing me at all, that I’m some breather scum, too common and too broken for your precious great-great-whatever nephew – who doesn’t need your fucking help, by the way? The fuck?”

He scowls, stands and stalks towards the fridge. “I’m a hunter! You think I can’t take down a fucking vampire? It’s the twenty-first fucking century, you know!”

Now, I know that Steve is the speaker in both paragraphs, but Steve is currently in a room occupied by Steve and Abe, the narrator, who both use masculine pronouns at this point in time. Given that the tendency is to switch to a new paragraph for a new speaker, it’s only natural for the reader to assume that the ‘he’ is Abe, not Steve. It’s not, though, and even though the reader should know that Abe is not a hunter by this point (assuming you recognise these characters) anything that makes the reader spend even five seconds pondering the identity of the speaker is bad writing. Why should I read a book, an investment of time and effort, when the writer doesn’t follow simple convention with regards paragraphing dialogue?

You could change the ‘he’ at the beginning of the second paragraph to ‘Steve’, but that still doesn’t resolve the fact that the reader expects a new speaker/character taking action because of the change to a new paragraph. I would either link the paragraphs or insert a new paragraph that shows us the reaction of either Abe or Great-Aunty Lizzie to Steve’s words:

“You are an arrogant, dominating, controlling, controlling…” Steve pauses before he slams his fist against the table and yells with enough force to surely startle Abe’s neighbours. “How dare you? How fucking dare you come in here with your racism and your list of eligible vampire ladies and decide, not knowing me at all, that I’m some breather scum, too common and too broken for your precious great-great-whatever nephew – who doesn’t need your fucking help, by the way? The fuck?”

Lizzie closes her fist about her parfait glass, her lips pressed together in thin, bloodless lines.

Steve scowls, stands and stalks towards the fridge. “I’m a hunter! You think I can’t take down a fucking vampire? It’s the twenty-first fucking century, you know!”

This gives us the object of Steve’s anger, a reaction, a reason for his second paragraph … and it follows the convention of shifting to a new paragraph with the action of a new character. No confusion over the speaker.

Speech tags at all?

You may have noticed that my examples tend to replace speech tags with action. ‘Said’ is invisible, in the main, but if you attach it to every line of dialogue the reader isn’t going to see anything other than ‘said, asked, said, said, said, asked, said’. That’s not good writing. Hence the trend to jazz a work up by adding different words. After all, we’re taught to not use the same word oodles of times in writing – repetition, at least not used for deliberate effect, is bad. This, though, still isn’t good writing.

‘Said’, in fact, is another statement-of-the-obvious word: the reader knows, if dialogue is indicated by quotation marks, italics or a comma (if you’re Cormac McCarthy), that somebody is saying those words. The only thing it does is link dialogue to its speaker.

The last line of my first edited example is as follows:

“Your dad is just over there,” Abe says. He gulps at an inexplicable tightness in his throat and tries his hardest to look as though he’s not avoiding Aki Nakamura. “Isn’t it his mother’s?”

Or it could become this:

“Your dad is just over there.” Abe gulps at an inexplicable tightness in his throat and tries his hardest to look as though he’s not avoiding Aki Nakamura. “Isn’t it his mother’s?”

You don’t need ‘said’ to tell us Abe is the speaker. Sure, at times you just want to indicate dialogue without adding an action. A line of dialogue accompanied by action all the time can weigh down your writing with unneeded detail. Sometimes the words are more powerful if the reader gets to witness them on their own. Sometimes they’re spoken by a character of such bit or irrelevant status the only thing that matters are the words and the name attached to them. If you’re worried about ‘said’ appearing too many times in your work, ask yourself: do you need it every time you’ve used it? Can you replace it with an action? Chances are the answer is yes – and doing so will cut out extra words, show greater characterisation and create writing I can enjoy without disruption.

Go forth and dialogue.

 

(Usual ‘this is a grammar and writing post so I’ve fucked up somewhere’ disclaimer. Steve and Abe come to you courtesy of my Port Carmila stories and protest the notion of being used as examples. No real dialogue has been maimed to bring you this post. Inventing dialogue for the purposes of explanation is harder than it sounds!)

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