Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Dialogue About Fictional Banter

Imagine you see a short story, or (horrors, and entire novel) that begins with:

“Shut up!” he proclaimed.
“NO!” she intoned.
“Why not?” he shouted in a fierce tone.
“Because why?”
“Because I don’t want to,” she said, sneeringly.

The above passage has a number of problems. First, it’s dull. This is the kind of conversation you are likely to hear between two kids in the back seat of a car. If you have a scene which includes sibling rivalry this might work, but don’t linger. An entire story or novel with this kind of dialogue will make the reader toss your book over a freeway overpass.

The next issue is the dialogue tags. Proclaimed and intoned are used in the wrong context here. When one says “shut up,” it’s already implied by the words shut up the speaker is angry. (The exception would be the slang use of Shut up!” in which case your speaker might slap hands or bump fists with his/her fellow character.) “Shut up!” with an exclamation point, or just “Shut up,” will suffice. (Don’t overuse exclamation points.)

Intoned is also not needed. A response to Shut up is likely to engender use a snarky retort. Trust your readers to decide that for themselves how the speakers sound. If one starts a story this way, quickly give the reader a sense of people and place.

He shouted in a fierce tone is also not needed. The reader already senses this pair is carrying on a fierce conversation. Shouting is fierce.

The adjective sneeringly is just awful. Avoid adjectives and adverbs ( and clichés) like the plague.

So how do we put tags on dialogue?

Said is one of those invisible words like and, a and the. Tags in dialogue are only needed if there is accompanying action or a vivid metaphor.

Your dialogue should 1) Provide information, 2) reveal characterization, and 3) move the story ahead.

Like any scene, there must be a reason for it. Dialogue is not the same as everyday conversation. Most of what we utter throughout the day is uninteresting weather reports and comments on the price of gas.

Beginning a tale with dialogue is risky. Here is one way to solve this scene.
“Shut up!”
No.” Ashley said, smacking her brother
“Ow!” he rubbed his arm. “Why not?”
“Because why?
“Because I don’t want to.”
Dana glanced toward the back seat, and said, “If you kids don’t shut up I’m going to duct tape your mouths closed.”
They rode the rest of the way to the mall with the sound of Tommy sniffling.

Happy Writing.

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