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  Dialogue Traps (continued)    

Page 2 of 2

 

 

Don’t directly answer questions:  In real conversations most people try to answer your question, and then explain or clarify or add something interesting.  So the conversation between John and Dan in real life sounds like this:

Did you bring the bag?” John asked.

“Yeah.  It’s in the car.”

“Did she give you any trouble?”

“No.  She was too afraid,” Dan said.

“Were you followed here?” John asked.

“No.  I made a lot of cut-backs and quick turns.” 

Instead, in fiction this should read like this:   

“Did you bring the bag?” John asked.

“It’s in the car.”

“Did she give you any trouble?”

“She was too afraid,” Dan said.

“Were you followed here?” John asked.

“I made a lot of cut-backs and quick turns.” 

Notice how much smoother the second version is?  And even though the yes and no have been deleted, the reader still knows the character’s answers to the questions.  

Don’t use too many dialogue tags.  A dialogue tags is he said or she asked or John said, as in, ‘“I can’t drive a stick shift,” John said.”  Not every line of dialogue needs a dialogue tag because the identity of the speaker is known to the reader due to the back and forth of the dialogue.  With too many dialogue tags, the dialogue sounds bumpy: 

“I can’t drive a stick shift,” John said.

”Didn’t you learn to drive in high school?” Amy asked.

“My parents had an automatic,” John said.

“So what are you going to do?” Amy asked. 

“Maybe I should ask Mr. Jones to teach me,” John said.

 

 

“He drives a BMW,” Amy said.  “Maybe he’s never driven a stick.”

John said, “He grew up on a farm.  I’m sure the trucks there had stick shifts.”

“Go ahead and asked him for help,” Amy said. 

See how this John said, Amy said, John said, Amy said begins to sound like a metronome, and is distracting? 

Here is the same conversation without all the dialogue tags.  Note that the identity of the speaker (John or Amy) is clear from the back and forth nature of the dialogue. 

“I can’t drive a stick shift,” John said.

”Didn’t you learn to drive in high school?” Amy asked.

“My parents had an automatic.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Maybe I should ask Mr. Jones to teach me,” John said.

“He drives a BMW. Maybe he’s never driven a stick.”

“He grew up on a farm.  I’m sure the trucks there had stick shifts.”

“Go ahead and asked him for help,” Amy said. 

A couple of dialogue tags tell the reader who is speaking but not every line has a tag. 

Don’t modify said Almost all of the time, the word said—as in the dialogue tag Margaret said—should not be modified with an adverb.  So Margaret said is usually better than Margaret said obligingly or Margaret said happily or Margaret said sarcastically.  The reason is that the adverb (obligingly, happily, sarcastically) usually becomes redundant because the words Margaret spoke are in fact obliging or happy or sarcastic.  So in “Margaret said happily, “This is so much fun,”’ the happily is redundant.  The character’s words speak for themselves.  ‘“Help me, I’m drowning,” Mary yelled frantically.”   There’s no need to tell the reader her words are frantic because we well know they are frantic.  

 “‘I love you,’ she said endearingly,”  or ‘“Mom, I got an A on my geography test,’ Bobby said excitedly.”  These said modifiers sound pasted-on.  They weaken rather than strengthen the dialogue, and they don’t add anything the reader doesn’t already know.  They should rarely be used.

 

James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008.  He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).

           
           
   
           

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