A word after a word after a word is power.
– Margaret Atwood
It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly.
– C.J. Cherryh
A classic quote to comfort us all!
The first draft of anything is shit.
– Ernest Hemingway
When writing dialogue an aspect to consider is ‘attribution’ also known as ‘tagging’. This is usually a simple cue to alert the reader to who is speaking and sometimes how a line of dialogue is delivered. Dialogue conventions of any given genre aside, there are still some core issues worth looking at. Adverbs & Redundancy It’s easy to push a little hard with dialogue attribution in an effort to ‘make sure’ the reader understands tone or emotion in a conversation. This might include adding a modifier (be it one word or even a whole phrase) to clarify. The risk is over-explaining and straying into redundancy. Often these single word modifiers are ‘ly’ adverbs, though that’s not always the case. Generally speaking, it’s best to use any modifiers carefully and to effect, rather than using them to beat the reader over the head. Let the dialogue breathe, let it speak for itself and give the reader credit in their interpretive ability. Compare:
“This way,” Lisa shouted loudly. “Sounds like a bad idea,” he said uncertainly. “Trust me, can you?” she said angrily. “Love to but your track record isn’t exactly great,” said Robert with a sarcastic tone. “Dad would have agreed with me,” she said quietly. “Yeah, yeah, you’re the favourite. I remember,” he said bitterly.
“This way,” Lisa shouted. “Sounds like a bad idea,” he said. “Trust me, can you?” “Love to but your track record isn’t exactly great.” “Dad would have agreed with me.” “Yeah, yeah. You’re the favourite. I remember,” Robert said, a trace of bitterness in his voice.
The first example is quite laboured. Every emotion is prescribed for the reader even to the point of redundancy in the first line. A ‘shout’ is by definition ‘loud’ and so the adverb adds nothing to the dialogue. Further, the pace of the conversation is damaged and there’s even a sense of the writer manipulating the characters by pressing ‘emotion buttons’ line by line and forcing the characters into melodrama. In the second example however, there’s a more natural flow to the conversation. This is partly because there are only two modifiers. First, ‘shouted’ where the volume of Lisa’s voice is still clear and the second, ‘bitterness’ whereby an emotion is given to the reader for a phrase that could be interpreted multiple ways; anger, regret, sarcasm:
“Yeah, yeah. You’re the favourite. I remember,” Robert snapped. “Yeah, yeah. You’re the favourite. I remember,” Robert said softly. “Yeah, yeah. You’re the favourite. I remember,” Robert said brightly.
The first substitution in the conversation also uses ‘shouted’ to replace ‘said’ and thereby adds variety for the reader’s eye. As mentioned at the end of Part 1, there are more techniques to follow this one and each of them can be used to deliver dialogue in conjunction with the other. More on dialogue next time!