Friday, March 19, 2010

Blog Chain: Say what?

It’s blog chain time again. Kate brought up the topic of dialogue.

What is dialogue? Do you enjoy writing dialogue? Do you use a lot of dialogue in your writing (for our purposes "a lot" will be defined as more than a smidge and yet not so much that the quotes key on your computer is completely worn out.)? Do you have example(s) of dialogue you especially enjoyed from something you've read? Do you have example(s) of dialogue from your own writing? What about these examples makes them special?

I love reading and writing dialogue. I think dialogue helps to propel a story forward -- if it's done effectively. Effective dialogue has a nice balance between the words characters speak, the body language they use and the way it grounds the reader in the setting.

The tricky thing about dialogue, however, is what may be effective to some may be distracting to others.

Using Mildred Taylor’s 1977 award-winning novel, “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," I'm going to expand on the tag issues some of the other chain gang members talked about.

“Well, ole Little Man done got his Sunday clothes dirty,” T.J. laughed as we jumped down from the bank. Angry tears welled in Little Man’s eyes but he quickly brushed them away before T.J. could see them.

“Ah, shut up, T.J.,” Stacey snapped.

“Yeah, shut up, T.J.,” I echoed.

“Come on, Man,” Stacey said, “and next time do like I tell ya.”

Little Man hopped down from the bank. “How’s come they did that, Stacey, huh?” he asked, dusting himself off. “How’s come they didn’t even stop for us?”

“’Cause they like to see us run and it ain’t our bus,” Stacey said, balling his fists and jamming them tightly into his pockets.

“Well, where’s our bus?” demanded Little Man.

“We ain’t got one.”

“Well, why not?”

“Ask Mama.”

Through body language (balling fists, brushing away tears) and dialogue, Taylor gets her readers to see and feel so much about the story -- setting, age, emotion -- in less than 150 words.

It’s brilliant. I’ve adored this book since I was a little girl.

But there are things I don’t like about Taylor’s dialogue. For me, her tags – especially the word “demanded” – interrupt the flow of the scene.

A former UNL journalism professor used to tell the students in his classes that using anything other than “said” and “asked” to tag dialogue is the sign of a hack writer. That's pretty harsh. I’m not sure I’d be bold enough to call anyone a hack, especially a splendid writer like Taylor who has a Newbery Award to her credit.

But I know using generic tags like "asked" and "said" makes the dialogue smooth because readers’ eyes skim right over the top of them. Those words are so common, they don't need to be read and processed.

Tags like stated, exclaimed, squeaked and declared should be used sparingly. Personally, I like to avoid them as often as I can, like this snippet from the current WIP.

“You just seem, I don’t know,” I stammered, treading careful into volatile territory. “You’ve always struck me as kind of a loner type. Either that or you’ve been very deliberate in keeping your friends away from me.”

“I have not.” His tone bit.

“Well, I’ve never met…”

“What about T.J.? We played pool with him that night at the bar. Or were you too drunk to remember?”

I pursed my lips. Maybe the isolation had been my imagination.

Doug scowled at me until the gas pump clicked off. “If anyone has been deliberately guarded about us, it’s been you. I haven’t met anyone you know.”

“I don’t know anyone.”

“Really? What about the people you work with? Have you told them about us?”

I lowered my eyes. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s a small town. Because Tam’s husband is a paramedic, and I know you know him.”


“But we never go anywhere together.”

“Damn, Penny, we’re going somewhere right now. Quit being so dim.”

Doug sounds like a nice guy, huh? Not so much.

Now that this is officially the longest post on this blog, I’m going to turn things over to Christine. Don’t forget to check out what Eric had to say about dialogue yesterday.


Elana Johnson said...

Dude, if this is your longest post, then I feel bad! I too, am not a huge fan of anything besides said and asked. Maybe whispered. I like the blocking tags better.

Great thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Not that I'm an expert, LOL!, but I prefer to give an action to the character instead of a "said," "asked," "whispered," etc. It keeps the action going while giving the feeling of movement, IMHO.

Thanks for sharing!

Eric said...

Great post, even if it is longer than usual (like I'd notice lol). I like the first example you provide, and although I hadn't noticed it the first time through, I see what you mean about "demanded". That's the type of thing I need to teach my writer's eye to see. Words that interrupt the flow. I like your second example too. The dialogue doesn't get in the way at all, and I had no trouble visualizing the scene.

Oh, and off subject, I like your book trailer. Nice job there.

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

I like when I can avoid using say or said and use action like you did a lot in your example. However, I don't really mind non said dialogue tags - maybe just because I'm such a fast reader that my eyes skim right over all the words.

lazy18 said...

great post!..i like to put in dailoge in a differnt way.i put it in when my character is probably thinking something or and internal conversation is going on in his/her head :)..well written

Sandra said...

I also prefer to use action as a tag, and I try to avoid using words like "demanded." I think it's better if the words can convey some of the tone. The only time I use said-bookisms and adverbs is when they contradict the words, such as, "I hate you," she crooned.

Mandy said...


Your new layout and banner are great! I loved both your personal and "borrowed" dialog examples!

I've also been told that 95% of all dialog should be tagged with "said" or "asked". But I do take the opportunity to use that other 5% to sneak in a "whispered" or "breathed" or "murmured"... you get the picture. ;)

Christine Fonseca said...

I totally get ya on the tags thing...and I have NO IDEA what I am writing for this one...SHOOT!!!

Sarah Bromley said...

Great post, Kat! I agree with you on much of it. I usually get rid of dialogue tags when I can or replace it with an action, too.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Kat. The tag-thing gets me. Echoed? Snapped? Demanded? Nope.

Great post.

Lydia Kang said...

Great post!
I also don't like too many tags. But sometimes I've read dialogue where there are so few tags I'm not sure who's talking! So, a happy medium is good I guess!

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Cool post, and I agree in the preference for said and asked. In fact, I agree with everything Lydia just said, but I still wanted to say hi. :-)

B.J. Anderson said...

Nice dialogue! I'm totally feeling it. Great post! And I love the new blog look.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michelle McLean said...

Yep, my crit partners are helping break me of the habit of over using dialogue tags. I'm getting better and sticking to said and asked, but I do toss in something else every now and then. I've gotten much better at avoiding them entirely though. It's amazing how often you simply don't need them.

KM Wilsher said...

Great chain. Reminds me to be careful and gives me permission to drop some tags! :0)

Crimey said...

Kat, oops don't know how I missed this post until now. I try not to used tags other than 'said' or 'asked'. And oftentimes, I drop the tags all together if it's an exchange between two people. I do like the little action showed before or after dialogue.

Your sample dialogue rocks. I would definitely keep reading on to find out more about the characters based on that snippet.

Cole Gibsen said...

I thought I was the only one who got asian porno spam! lol

Anyway - great post! I totally agree with you on the dialogue tag bit. I try not to stray too far from "said", myself. Or, I'll stick to spit-fire dialogue and drop the tags all together.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

I totally agree about using anything other than said or asked. When people use things other than that, I tend to stop and think about it. "Help!" he squeaked. How does one squeak out a word? I much prefer something like, "Help!" he said. His voice broke and fell apart completely. I'm not sure if that's better than "squeaked" but it doesn't stop me when I'm reading.

Your example was really well done.