Editor's Notes: Making Dialog Flow

Writing dialog provides ample opportunity to trip up the reader.  In this post, I discuss the four most prevalent.

He Said/She Said

Osaka umeda03s3200
Have you ever read something that went like this?
"You just don't understand," I said.
"Tell me what I don't understand," Maggie said.
"Anything," I said.
Boring!  Flat.  Redundant.

Use the plethora of verbs that identify speech, as well as those which evoke visceral responses.  Some eschew the use of identifiers as an unnecessary distraction, but by inserting carefully considered words in appropriate places, counterproductive becomes enhancement. What does "retorted" say about a discussion? What about murmured or sighed or blurted or cooed?
"You just don't understand," I sigh.
"What don't I understand?" Maggie probes.
But, even that gets old very quickly.  Use the many tools available to prevent this, as I identify in "Say What?" below.

In some instances, especially in situations of continuous dialog, simple running quotations serve. The reader is hurrying forward, so no need to slow them down:
"You just don't understand," I sigh.
Mary steps closer to me.  "What don't I understand."
"Anything!  You don't ever see what goes on around you."
"That's not fair."
"But it's true."
"I don't know why you believe that."
I think of it as a train working up a head of steam. The first identifiers are the initial chug-chug-chugs, until the conversation reaches a pretty good clip and sails along, eliminating the need for further explanation.

However, as a writer, one must be careful of the danger (one I often stumble into) of losing track of who said what. To avoid this, throw in a physical response indicating emotion and/or a bit of staging to remind the reader (and yourself) who's doing the talking.

"But it's true.  You go around in your rose-colored glasses, blind to everything but the butterflies and daisies." I snort to myself at the image I've created, and my voice takes on a mocking tone.  "—and wee little fairies fluttering through the air."

Don't Horde the Full Stops

As both an editor and a reader, one of the biggest annoyances for me is the run-on quotation.  I see it in rough, rough manuscripts and best-selling authors.  You know the type: the author creates a conversation, but, after the end of the quotation marks, runs on and on and on.  Consider the following:
"You just don't understand," I tell Maggie as I lean my head against the window, soothed by the smooth surface cold from the altitude, the wind and the rain, while the tears on my face mirror the drops of water sliding down the glass.
Give us a break!  Literally.  Everything following "Maggie" relates to nothing within the quotation, so don't lump any action or commentary in the same sentence.  Consider how much better the following excerpt flows:
"You just don't understand," I tell Maggie.  I lean my head against the window. Its smooth surface, cold from the altitude and the storm, soothes me.  I feel the raindrops sliding down the glass as tears on my face.

Say What?

Fragile Emotion
One very common error I see is the misplacement of the identifiers.  These can be used before, after, or in the middle of the quotation, or eliminated completely.  Stand-alone sentences, free of any verbs referencing speech, may also act as as identifiers.
Maggie stoops to look up into my face and sighs, "Tell me what I don't understand."
"Tell me what I don't understand," Maggie pleads.
Maggie wraps her arm around my shoulder.  "Tell me what I don't understand."
The difficulty comes when writers place the identifiers at the end of multi-sentence quotations.
"Tell me what I don't understand.  I truly want to help you, but I can't if you won't tell me what's going on.  I'm not a mind-reader, you know," Maggie instructs.
This structure withholds the identification of the speaker until the very end.  This poses no difficulty in the case of a two-person continuous conversation; however, in such a case, I either insert the identifier in the quotation or leave it off altogether.

In the case of several characters in the conversation, or even the scene, keeping the speakers clearly defined is a must.  As writers, we want readers to stop and reread only to savor the genius of our thoughts brilliantly expressed, not to try and muddle out who is saying what.

In instances of inserting identifiers in the middle of the quotation, always do so after the first instance of punctuation.  Always use the correct punctuation (the subject of another post).
"Tell me what I don't understand," Maggie instructs.  "I truly want to help you."
 One can also insert actions to convey sensibilities within the quote.
"I truly want to help you," Maggie instructs, "but I can't if I don't know what's going on."  She heaves a sigh and throws her hands up, turning away.  "I'm not a mind reader, you know."
Most of all, avoid getting stuck in a rut.  Just like he said/she said, the same sentence structure gets monotonous very quickly.
"You don't understand," I tell Maggie.  "You don't know anything."
"I can't know unless you tell me," she insists.  "Tell me what I don't understand."
"Anything!" I retort.  "You and your rose-colored glasses."
Mix it up! Give it color.  Make it visceral.
I jump from my skin, startled out of my black musings by the sound of the rattling doorknob.  Maggie pokes her head around the door, and I can breathe again.  "Blazes, Maggie!  You just took ten years off my life."
Future US HQ 4th floor conference room - Board Room
"No worries," Maggie grins.  "I only took the bad ones.  I did you a service.  Thank me."
"Thank you," I smile.  However, I cannot shake the angst and turn away.
"Becca, you have to quit doing this to yourself.  You have to put it behind you."
"You don't understand." I lean my head against the window.  Its cold surface and the patter of the rain soothes the sensibilities roiling within me.
Maggie leans down to look up into my face.  "Tell me what I don't understand."
"Anything!" I retort.  I step away from the comfort she offers.  "You don't understand anything. You're—you.  So perfect.  So happy.  So blind to what goes on around you."
"That's not fair."
"But it's the truth!"
"No, it's not," Maggie insists.  "I see the conniving and brown-nosing and blame game that goes on in this office.  I hear the backbiting and gossip.  I simply choose what I ingest.  I refuse to devour the ugliness and make it a part of me."
I huff at her holier-than-thou attitude and fold my arms across my chest.
"I want to help you, Becca."  Maggie takes on her big-sister tone. "I do, but I can't unless you tell me what's going on.  I see actions and hear words, but I'm not a mind-reader."
She waits for my response, and in the silence, her words at last make it through my angst and I smirk.  "You said brown-nosing."
"What?  I should have said a**-licking?" 

Where Was I?

This last problem I saved for last because it is my personal foible and I have to fight against it constantly.  Time and time and time again—and again—I see writers wandering away from the conversation, interrupting their characters to add commentary or to pontificate or speculate on all manner of distractions.  The reader forgets there is a conversation.

In me, it surely stems from my female need to show how everything is interrelated.  I have an addiction to back story.  I feel compelled to inform the reader of everything.  I have particular difficulty with word count.

The following is an unedited excerpt from a short story I've been working on.  Compare the length of the last example compared to what I've written below.  Ask yourself these questions as you read:

  • Is anything of material importance lost in the first example?  
  • Is the dialog enhanced or diluted with the additional commentary?  
  • Which flows better?  
  • Which is easier to follow?  
  • How does the dialog above provide the character development described at such length below?
  • When you read the first example, did the absence of back story make a difference in your understanding of the characters?
  • Which do you prefer reading?
Cubicle landI jump from my skin, startled out of my black musings with the sound of the door knob turning the latch. My heart leaps to my throat and I spin on my heel toward the door. My hands shake. My breath stops. My nerves all stretch taut and I fear will surely snap, all within the fraction of an instant. But, as the door swings open, Maggie pushes her head around it. My breath rushes from my lungs. I breathe again. “Blazes, Maggie!” I sputter. “You just took ten years off my life.”

Maggie flashes her smile and her dimples at me—the ones that get her out of any fix even while her piercing blue eyes spark with mischief. Or, maybe her honey blonde hair that shines in the sunlight like spun gold and flame account for it, or the fact that her thick, untamed curls personify her impish manner. She exudes energy and vitality, and possesses a particular knack for making anyone feel they are the most important thing in the world to her. No matter what she does—and she does love a good practical joke—no one ever faults her for it. It is impossible to stay angry with Maggie.

Maggie shrugs. “No worries,” she grins. “I only took the bad ones. I did you a service. Thank me.”

“Thank you,” I smile, but I cannot shake the angst that overruns me. I turn again to the windows, pensive and uneasy.

Maggie stands beside me and slips her arm around my waist. I am all about the impenetrable bubble, but she has never understood the concept of personal space. No one objects to the way she claims a person and makes them her own private property. She makes us her dolls and stuffed animals that she arranges neatly in tiny chairs around her wee little table for tea. Then, proper mommy as she is, she takes us one by one, feeds us, scolds us, loves us, and wipes our chins, then sets us down comfy and cozy while she moves on to the next. Half the men in the department love Maggie to distraction. Everyone basks in her attentions—everyone except Roark.

Maggie loves. She manages to find something good in nearly the worst of us, even the unlovable like me. And if we prove a daunting task, she keeps at it until she finds it or spawns it and nurtures it until it grows strong and free. Maggie makes us better.
I have never seen her treat anyone with unmasked loathing, except Roark. But then, he didn’t get a slap on the face from Maggie. He got a knee in the crotch.
When Roark sees Maggie coming, he turns and scurries the opposite direction. When she learns he crossed the line with someone (and she always finds out sooner or later), he locks himself in his office and refuses to come out for days.

Maggie leans her head on my shoulder. I wrap my arm around hers and rest my head on her own. My four-inch executive pumps make me tower over her diminutive frame, fond as she is of ballet flats. We stand there, silently, for a time, watching the storm clouds assault the skyscrapers until fat droplets splattered on the glass and we feel enshrouded in fog.

“You have to quit doing this to yourself, Becca,” she whispered softly. “You have to move on.” She knows how lonely life has become for me since Mr. Stephens retired.

I wag my head and blink back the tears which force their way to the surface, no matter how I try to prevent it. “I don’t know if I can do this any longer, Sissy,” I whisper.
Everyone in her family calls Maggie “Sissy”. We have an unspoken pact: I hate Becca as much as she hates Sissy, but between the two of us, the diminutives became our own private code. We belong to one another. We have done since I was eight years old.

“I can’t breathe,” I tell the glass. “I had that dream again last night. It never changes. I scarcely sleep. I’m suffocating. I need air.”

“Then, why are you still here?”

I just look at her, somewhat disdainfully. She knows the answer to that question but will not force me to say it out loud. I should not be so dependent upon her. It should be the other way around.
I’m the smart one, with brilliant prospects. I have my MBAs in two different fields and my meteoric rise to nowhere. Maggie has her AA in executive administration. She plays glorified, overworked, underpaid secretary to me and five other dimwits who could never get along without her.

I know her capable of so much more, but she likes what she does and she is good at it. She has a life (unlike some of us), and she leaves her work at the office at the end of the day. I envy her so desperately, my teeth hurt, but my pride would never allow me to choose her lifestyle.

I snuffle and push at the tears smearing my make-up. She clucks at me, produces a handkerchief, and begins dabbing at my face but says nothing. I allow it. I could never defy Maggie.
A year older than me, I have always felt her my older sister. I outstripped her in height and stature by the time I was thirteen, but the relationship between us has never changed—not even when she whispered in a few ears and got me the interview with Mr. Stephens when I should have first paid my dues as an intern.

Her brow furrows and her eyes take on a far-away look, like I’m not standing before her being mothered. I rarely see that expression on her face, but I know she muddles on a conundrum that vexes her. Maggie hates problems she cannot fix with a smile, a pat, a touch or a hug. Nearly all fall before her with efforts so little as that.
As I watch her, I can tell when resolve overtakes her and she settles on a plan. Her eyes become bright and clear again, demand my complete attention, and she smiles all the love and assurance she can muster. “I know exactly what you need. I think you are ready.”

“Ready?” The look in her eyes makes me a touch apprehensive. I have never seen her more serious or resolved. She looks like she prepares for a battle she’s not certain she will survive.

“For a vacation, silly,” she laughs. All her tells and all my uncertainty vanish in an instant, and not because of the light so brilliant within her it appears her eyes glow. Perhaps the stormy backdrop explains it, or perhaps my overactive imagination, but just for a moment, I swear they flame.
I can (and must) delete a great deal from the above excerpt.  Some things, such as  Maggie's physical characteristics and Roark's shenanigans should be included somewhere but are misplaced right in the middle of the dialog.

When you write conversations, stay focused on the here and now of it.  Make the information your reader requires part of the characters' speech, but—and this is very important—make sure you retain the character's voice.

Try practicing writing dialog.  Keep it fresh, clear, energized, and on the right track.

1 comment:

Fiona Ingram said...

I have an editor for my historical fiction, and another for my Middle Grade fiction. Whenever I try to ring the changes by adding in (to me) interesting things, as an alternative to 'said,' they go berserk with the red pen. In their opinions (they have never met!), 'said' is rather like butter on bread. You should not notice it, but it's necessary for the sandwich. They say anything else jerks the reader out of the actual flow of the dialogue/story.