Words to the Wise
are as many kinds of dialogue in fiction as the sum
total of stories, novels, and characters that exist.
And really that shouldn't surprise us. Because what
is dialogue, after all, but the speech that could
only come from the mouth of one character in all of
fiction, and from the mind of one writer?
Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People
Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
Bring Your Writing to Life
I was surprised when
a friend told me that, when she reads a novel, she skips much of
the narrative and goes straight to the dialogue. She's not
alone. Acquisitions editors in publishing houses do the same. In
the best advice you'll find anywhere on how to improve your
dialogue, Browne and King, authors of Self-editing for
Fiction Writers, write: "What's the first thing acquisitions
editors look for when they begin reading a fiction submission?
Several editors we know have answered that question the same
way: 'The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue.
If the dialogue doesn't work, the manuscript gets bounced. If
it's good, I start reading.'"
Strong dialogue can
lift almost any story—including memoir, nonfiction, even opinion
pieces—to new heights. But strong dialogue can easily be
weakened by what Browne and King call "creaky mechanics." One of
the most common ways writers kill even the best dialogue is by
describing or explaining it with attributions like "she snarled,
giggled, chided, declared, cried, mused, stated, muttered."
Whew! These verbs can entangle your reader, drawing attention
away from the dialogue and toward your technique. Your best bet
is to replace them all with said. Said isn't read
the way other verbs are read; it's more like punctuation:
transparent, and therefore graceful. It leaves your reader free
to concentrate on your dialogue.
Adverbs ending in
ly that describe said do the same kind of damage:
"I’m afraid it's not going very well," he said grimly. They,
too, "catch the writer in the act of explaining
dialogue—smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that
belong in the dialogue itself." Browne and King would like you
to think of it this way: "Every time you insert an explanation
into dialogue, you're cheating your readers out of a little bit
of one of your characters. Do it often enough, and none of your
characters ever comes to life on the page."
and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit
Yourself into Print, 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Read chapter 5: "Dialogue Mechanics."
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