Monday, September 10, 2012

No Talking Heads

by Lucy Marsden

Talking Head Syndrome.

It's a thing that I notice when I and other writers are bolting through a story, particularly if it's our style to do early drafts mostly in dialogue. It's line after line of conversation, with enough "said" in the mix so that we can tell which character is speaking, but too few of the action tags, facial expressions, tone of voice indicators, and internal dialogue tags necessary to convey the full impact of the words being spoken. In her fantastic Romance Writers of America presentation, Dialogue: It's More Than What You Say, author Julia Quinn puts it like this: "The first thing to remember, is that dialogue has two parts. There is the part between the quotation marks, or WHAT IS SAID, and there is the part outside the quotation marks, or HOW IT IS SAID."

We need both parts in order to really bring our dialogue home, so today's post is going to (briefly) touch on the tools we writers have at our disposal when crafting the "how" of dialogue.

I know the word is out on this one, but let me repeat it here for emphasis: Using the tagline "said"—rather than forcing our characters to squeak, mumble, hiss, or shout—is perfectly OK. In fact, it's generally preferable, since we know that readers don't "see" the tagline, and it makes for a smooth experience of reading dialogue.

Other Utterances
This isn't to say that characters should never squeak, mumble, hiss, or shout; these tags can add a lot of fun and flavor to our dialogue when used judiciously.

Ditto. If someone delivers a verbal stiletto sweetly, or answers cautiously, these are valid, useful ways to deliver the impact of the dialogue, as long as they aren't overdone. Overuse of adverbs can contribute to "telling" rather than "showing," but they're still nice to have in our toolbox. To reference Julia Quinn one more time: "Adverbs are not your friends, but there is no reason they can't be your casual acquaintances."

Action Tags and Body Language
Action tags are fantastic: they really help us to show, not tell. And if it's true that communication is mostly non-verbal, then it's doubly important for us to provide details about facial expressions, whether a character's posture is tense or relaxed, and the rate of someone's breathing.

Tone of Voice
Once it a while, is it as dry as the Sahara? Oily enough to lubricate a hinge? Excellent! Then this is one more way of delivering impact that also utilizes sensory input and our enjoyment of simile and metaphor—a bargain if there ever was one.

And Lastly, Internal Dialogue
When what we say out loud is juxtaposed with what we're thinking in the privacy of our heads, it's wonderful, so we shouldn't miss out on this opportunity to add a touch of irony and a splash of humor by utilizing internal dialogue as a counterpoint for what is spoken.

So there we have it. I want to wrap up this post by acknowledging that each writer will use these tools differently. The choices we make will be a reflection of our voices as writers, a reflection of the voices of our characters, and a reflection of the feel of a particular story. More important than any one approach to using these tools, is a growing sense of awareness of how these techniques work, and an increasing sense of confidence that we can employ them to create the results that we want. Please stop in and talk about the choices you make when writing dialogue—the tools you're comfortable using, and the tools you'd forgotten existed.

Lucy Marsden is a romance writer living in New England. When she’s not backstage at a magic show or crashing a physics picnic, she can be found knee-deep in the occult collection of some old library, or arguing hotly about Story.


Jean Oram said...

I mostly just follow my instincts. But the points you make are all things that go through my head during edits. This is a great summary of the 'rules' writers should pay attention to. :)

I should mention that in my first story, in the first draft the characters were always hmming and hahing and whispering and all those things I thought would make it feel more real.

Crystal Collier said...

Pretty much any time I see a "said", I cringe. I think there is rarely a reason you can't infer who's speaking by the action around the dialog, and I'm finding the more I get into this, I'm leaning more on body language. 70% of communication is non-verbal, so isn't that how it should be in our writing?

Luce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jemi Fraser said...

Great post. When I first started writing, I added a dialogue tag to every single piece of dialogue. I'd never even heard the expression 'dialogue tag'. Boy, I'm glad I stumbled into a critique group!

Luce said...

Sorry, guys--I goofed my earlier comment, so I'm back to try again:

Jean, you make a good point: totally realistic dialogue isn't going to work; we have to develop an ear for dialogue that combines realism and dramatic impact.

Crystal, I still say that it depends on the author's voice, and the cadence that they are trying to create for the dialogue. Tags are strategic for some of us, because they actually help us to create the pace we're aiming for. There are Many Roads To Oz, though, so definitely do whatever works best for you!

Luce said...

I know what you mean, Jemi--writing groups and critique partners really make a difference in our experience of writing!

SC Author said...

This is great :) Thank you for this post! Dialogue can always be improved, much like everyng else.

Luce said...

You're so welcome!