I like to write mysteries because I like to read mystery stories. It all began with the Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene when I was a pre-teen in the 1950s. I have four published novels, poetry and short stories.
Thursday, December 29, 2016
Let the Dialogue Speak by Mary Deal
Let the Dialogue Speak
Proper use of said and the use of beats will keep a story flowing smoothly.
and articles turn up touting the value of replacing the use of the word said. She said. He said. Many claim said
is overused and tiresome. They supply an endless plethora of verbs, nouns and
adjectives to use instead. My opinion is that, in most cases, there are no
substitutes, given what said does when used properly.
is acceptable enough to hide in the background and not call the reader’s
attention to dynamics of speech that is best shown with proper punctuation.
Said is simply a speaker attribution and tells us who said what in the course
of conversation. Yet, said can become grossly overworked. This is why many
people have tired of it. This is an example of overuse:
Papi,” Pablo said. “When do we eat?”
ten minutes,” his father said.
going back to the street then,” Pablo said. “I’m winning all the races.”
Rico said. “Be on time for dinner.”
Papi,” Pablo said.
from Legacy ofThe Tropics, the conversation flows much better when written this
Papi,” Pablo said, eyes eager and smiling. “When do we eat?”
going back to the street then.” He started to run away. “I’m winning all the
Rico said. “Be on time for dinner.”
sentence, both dialogue and narration, contains slight variations. The
descriptions of actions included with dialogue are referred to as beats. The characters are not only
talking. They are involved in doing something at the same time they speak.
the actions of characters are included, the writer must be careful not to
overuse beats. They serve the purpose of avoiding dialogue with a running
string of saids, known as speaker
wholeheartedly agree with Renne Browne and Dave King. In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, they
you substitute the occasional speaker attribution with a beat, you can break
the monotony of the saids before it
begins to call attention to itself.”
is not necessary in writing, but it makes for smoother reading and
understanding of the characters and scene.
example, say you are speaking in live conversation with someone. You hear their
words and watch their body language and facial gestures, or look to where they
direct your attention. When described in a written story, their physical
gestures are the beats.
reading, beats allow for a silent pause between dialogues, a moment to digest
what is being said and the action emphasizes the dialogue.
page, a speaker attribution identifies who is speaking. The word said is
accepted because it remains in the background. It does not make us pause to
visualize or try to understand the way the character speaks. Here’s an example
when said has been erroneously replaced:
more?” Ciara questioned. “I know what I have to do. Rico also had a sister he
never talked about. Help me find her—”
Lazaro interrupted. “There’s a reason why he never spoke of her.”
know about her?” Ciara quizzed.
si. She had breast cancer,” Lazaro sympathized.
the same conversation from The Tropics,
written another way:
more?” Ciara asked. “I know what I have to do. Rico had a sister he never
talked about. Help me find her—”
Lazaro said. “There’s a reason why he never spoke of her.”
know about her?”
si. She had breast cancer.”
aspect of smooth writing is that when only two characters exchange conversation,
you need not identify each by name each time they say something. You also need
not include any speaker attribution at all, unless the dialogue string is too
long and should be broken up into smaller bites. Simply establish who spoke
first, who responded, and the reader will follow along. Also, a good place to
insert a few beats is in any string of dialogue where speaker attributions are
gets more complicated when you have three or more people sharing conversation.
A few more speaker attributions are acceptable, and a beat both aids in showing
us the character’s actions and prevents a string of attributions each time a
new voice is written in dialogue. Here’s another example of over-use:
haven’t seen Larry for months,” Ruby said.
thought you two were tight as thieves,” Brad said.
that tight,” Ruby said.
we all had it wrong,” Denny said.
guys and your assumptions,” Ruby said.
a better example:
haven’t seen Larry for months,” Ruby said.
thought you two were tight as thieves,” Brad said, as he pressed a hand against
the gun inside his jacket.
that tight!” Ruby looked around the room, all the while feigning nonchalance
and looking like any other customer in the bar.
we had it all wrong,” Denny said as he took another sip of his drink.
guys and your assumptions.”
revised example, when a speaker attribution is not included, we still know who
is speaking. Using a beat makes it easy to know to whom the dialogue belongs,
so leave off the attribution.
too, that chimed in or quipped or volunteered or whispered
and such other attributions did not substitute for the word said.
really happened among the saids in
the second example is that the word said receded into the background and
allowed us to fully comprehend the urgency of the conversation. Because of the
punctuation, we didn’t have to be told about voice inflection or any other way
that the speaker spoke, which would have made us stop and visualize the action
or the tenseness of the conversation.
choice of words and punctuation in the dialogue did that for us, with the help
of said, which quietly did its part, as it should. Our eyes read the important
words, given due importance with the punctuation, while said registers only
subconsciously. All we need to further the action is to read on.
Attributing dialogue to certain characters
need not be overdone. Proper punctuation does that for us. For example:
klutz!” he exclaimed.
exclamation point tells us the remark was an exclamation and not a quiet
statement or a question.
not necessary to repeat to the reader that he
exclaimed. Readers do not like redundancy. It’s very off-putting; as if the
writer is sure the reader won’t get it. In that incorrect assumption lays the
erroneous motivation for writers to use attributions other than said. An
experienced reader comprehends the first time through with proper punctuation.
writers make the mistake of thinking they can add impetus to dialogue by
including many and varied attributions. This is as bad a practice as using your
hands and arms in front of your face when you speak. When talking, words and
intonation speak for themselves and most hand gestures, at best, are rude. So,
like hand gestures, a writer may irritate a reader through redundancy.
another incorrect usage of attributions has become quite common:
hope you like it,” she smiled.
way over there,” he pointed.
like to take you home with me,” she breathed.
are unemotional sentences that do not need further modification. Smiled, pointed and breathed did not speak those words, nor do they tell why the words
were spoken. Such verbs have no place as speaker attributions. Only in a few
instances can said be replaced correctly.
way those sentences can be written properly, and sparingly, is given below.
Notice the punctuation:
hope you like it,” she said as she smiled.
way over there,” he said, pointing.
like to take you home with me,” she said, breathing heavily.
are two last examples of incorrect punctuation and attributes that just don’t
convey what is meant:
written when we already know who is speaking:
many other places writers can get creative, speaker attributes are best left to
the time-tested said, accompanied by proper punctuation in the dialogue.
is an award-winning author of suspense/thrillers, a short story collection, writers’
references, and self-help. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, Artist and Photographer,
and former newspaper columnist and magazine editor.
traveled most of her life and has a lifetime of many and diverse experiences,
all of which remain in memory as fodder for her fiction. A native of
California’s Sacramento River Delta, where some of her stories are set, she has
also lived in England, the Caribbean, and now resides in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Having traveled a bit, she continues to paint and use her art and photography
to create gorgeous products.