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Dialogue: Tag – You’re It!

Scribe smallI trust the rhythm of your narrative is now flawless and you are fast on your way to limning worlds as idyllic as a Church river bank, as shadowy as a Hopper city street.

Time to talk dialogue.

Years ago, my head full of dreams of becoming a great writer, I entered college intending to study literature, Aiken to Zola. Dissect great books, take a writing seminar or two, what could be a better education for a would-be writer? And, over my four years, I took a slew of lit courses, poring over everything from Shakespeare and Woolf with Camille Paglia to Beowulf – in Old English – with John Gardner. But, in the end, I found a more comfortable, less academic home in the Theatre Department. There I studied acting, directing, and design. And there I wrote plays. Though I have since replaced acts with chapters, no course of study could have served me better. In the spare play of characters, their voices uninterrupted by description, I learned the power and magic of dialogue.

Bennington College. Today this is the Bookstore. In my day it was home away from home, the Barn Studio Theatre

Bennington College. Today this is the Bookstore. In my day it was home away from home, the Barn Studio Theatre

By it’s very nature, dialogue is an active force in storytelling. People are talking to each other – they are engaged, sharing thoughts and emotions, weaving incantations and bittersweet declarations of love and loss. Idiomatic or formal, what characters say, what others say about them, the words they choose, the subjects they tackle or avoid, all this becomes flesh on otherwise lean bones.

Writer or editor, there are a few basics to good dialogue.

As art imitates life, so no two characters will talk exactly the same way. To this end, it is very important to know your characters well before you let them open their mouths. Know their background: place of origin, class, education, profession, age, gender, even species – I can assure you that the locution of a Land Angler from Venus-12 speaks would be unrecognizable to a Cymric Red Dragon from Anglesey! All these and more inform a character’s words, and help us tap their organic speech patterns and choices. This is the first step towards dialogue that sounds natural, not written.

Important as it is for characters to sound real, remember that a writer is not a tape recorder. Just as we don’t describe actions, second by second, frame by frame, so we do not put down every hem and haw that passes a person’s lips. We are here to distill and discriminate, to pick and choose the words that advance our tale, no more, no less. Once such authorial decisions are made, fade into the background and let your characters have their say. It is time for their voice to rise, not yours.

Dialogue can be a dynamic way to disseminate information, without getting bogged down in pages of dense narrative, but be careful not to use it as a dumping ground where you reiterate information the reader already knows. (A quite delicious example of this used to be found in the old soap opera “Passions.” Within the first five minutes of every show, one character would give another – and the audience – a rundown of everything that happened in the previous episode. It was ritual shtick that tipped into campy self-parody by series end.)
Lastly – at least for today – a few words about dialogue tags, those pesky ‘he saids’ and ‘she saids’ replete with qualifying adverbs of dubious merit. Everyone has their opinion about tags. For myself, I try to follow the principle of less is more.

If you are not sure about your own work, try this experiment: take several pages of dialogue and strip the tags out, every last one. Then read it through. If your characters are distinct, their words alone may make it clear who is speaking. If not – if the vocal differences are subtle (as with family members, for example) go back and tag where absolutely necessary. You are striving for clarity, not clutter. This is usually an easy matter in a two-person chat, but might tumble into nightmare territory with a party or mob scene.

As for adverbs, they are like putting line readings into a script – something actors would ignore and directors expunge with zeal. The lingering playwright in me says leave them out whenever possible, and then take the last ones out for good measure. If context and content don’t convey how something is said, try being creative with your verbs. Instead of “Cassandra said softly” consider “Cassandra whispered” or “muttered” or “sibilated”; instead of “said Uriah unctuously” consider “The words dripped from Uriah’s tongue….” Verbs with such specificity can add dimension to both character and scene. Plus, they are fun. That said, don’t go crazy – apt though it might be for oratory from a Naga, “sibilated” is a bit over the top for everyday prose. In the end, if you use tags, use them imaginatively but simply. Use them well.

A final thought:
Read plays. Classic or modern, Shakespeare, Albee, O’Neill, Stoppard, Williams, Beckett, Wasserstein… There is no substitute for learning from the masters.

Dialogue with a Bird - Yuri Dyakonov (1951-2005)

Dialogue with a Bird – Yuri Dyakonov (1951-2005)

Healing thoughts for the people of Boston.