Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Piece of Dialogue



I read a pretty good piece on dialogue by David Morrell yesterday. It had much of the usual good advice. 1) limit the dialogue tags where possible. Much of the time you won’t need them, especially if you’ve got two people going back and forth. 2) if you do use tags make almost all of them “said” or “asked.” Hissing and spitting and growling are not often of much use. 3) generally avoid using adverbs as modifiers for dialogue tags, such as “he said bitterly.”

He also said something I hadn’t thought of before. He mentioned how some people like to read their dialogue aloud to see if it sounds natural, and I’ve been known to do that myself. But he actually said this is a bad idea. The reason? When you read dialogue out loud you supply the tone and inflection that you know should be there but which the reader will not see on the page. He said: “In fiction, dialogue is an act of silent communication. You can’t rely on a reader to imagine that your characters speak with the inflection you intend. Rather, you have to invent visual clues that will force the reader to imagine the tone you require.” That’s a very good point, and one that had not occurred to me.

Finally, Morrell made one point that seemed funny to me. He generally seems to dislike exclamation marks, and I agree. I try not to use them very often. The point he made, though, is that you don’t need an exclamation point when the dialogue already contains intensity, such as when a character curses. Now, Morrell has taught literature and would seem to know his stuff, but a writer friend of mine who is an English professor always told me that you should definitely put an exclamation point after any dialogue in which a character curses. His point was that the curse essentially demands an exclamation point. So who is right? I know I’m confused. Maybe you folks have an opinion?

15 comments:

Susan Miller said...

Lovely advice. I think exclamation points get in the way. Punctuation is best left simple, and any tone should be provided in the writing itself.

Michelle's Spell said...

All good advice. I had a teacher that loved exclamation points and it worked for him since he was quite a gloomfest as a writer. So now all of us from that school all use too many exclamation points, and I've come to accept that as my fate. But I agree with the tag thing, too -- Dialogue used to be my biggest weakness and eventually became the thing I did best because I was so bad at it for so long. Most of my early dialogue sounded like it was translated from a book written by a non-native speaker of the language who worked with hand puppets. Thank God those days are over! Although I can still produce some howlers. I don't read dialogue out loud, though, because I agree -- it has to work on the page.

Danny Tagalog said...

I agree with Morrell, but I guess it's difficult to get that intensity sought after, and the exclamation mark often does the job the words were supposed to achieve alone.

Sidney said...

I'd say no exclamation points. Sometimes a bit of physical description can ehance a statement. "No exclamation points," he said, slamming his fist on the table.

Kate S said...

Hmm.... Twenty-some years ago, an English professor told me the same thing your English professor told you.

However, my humble opinion is that it ultimately depends on the context, the scene, the style, etc. Just don't go overboard with them. I work with an ex-cheerleader, and I have to edit out about 98% of the explanation points in her writing. :)

Steve Malley said...

"Um, sir? Mr Professor sir?"

"Fuck off."

"It's just, you said we had to use exclamtion points when we curse..."

"Oh." The professor ran one hand over the bottom half of his face and turned to face Jimmy.

"Fuck off!"

Steve Malley said...

Attribution and adverbs, who needs em?

And didja see the conflict drive that exchange?

Spelling, however...

Erik Donald France said...

All good points, no question. Less usually is more with dialogue tags (and much else).

JR's Thumbprints said...

Once again, I take the minimalist approach--less dialogue tags and sparsely used exclamation points. The words, if combined correctly, should have the necessary oomph. On the other hand, I'll readily admit to reading parts of my dialogue outloud to see whether it works. Yet again, more for the sake of whether the combination of words fits the characters dialect, and not so much for the intensity.

Stewart Sternberg said...

No. No. No. Kill Exclamation points. Death to them. Exclamation points are for comic books.

I agree with the tag advice.

One of the things brought up by Michelle is interesting and I think worthy of future consideration in a posting. Maybe I'll do that soon. I am referring to the issue of reading out loud. I'll hold off discussing that here, except to say there is nothing more interesting for me than listening to someone else interpret what I've written. It gives me a sense of how someone might read it and what I may do to accentuate or block that reading.

And Kate...you work with an ex cheerleader???? I'm not sure how to even respond to that.

Charles Gramlich said...

Seems to me the minimalist approach is the way to go. I hate to say that I'd never use an exclamation point, though. Why throw out a tool that might come in handy in just the right circumstances.

cs harris said...

I dislike exclamation points and generally write without them. But I constantly have editors inserting them, particularly after things such as "Look out!" or "Run!" They are a lazy way to write, which has led to their overuse (and therefor the disdain with which they are regarded). But they do serve a purpose.

miller580 said...

I see a valid argument about not reading out loud because the author's tone and inflection may mask what is ultimately weak dialogue.
However, I would suggest reading out loud also uncovers many more technical issues than simple tone and inflection in dialogue. In the prose as a whole many half thoughts, choppy transitions and over all sloppy writing is easily exposed. If the author simply reads quietly to himself, their eyes have a tendency to gloss over errors. However if you as a writer do take the time to read out loud, it force every word out into the open.

As for punctuation, I would suggest that there are rules, and there is a time to break rules. Writer's discretion is necessary. If you want to put in an ! than put it in.

Rob Brooks said...

I never thought to NOT read the dialogue out loud, but it makes sense not to do it.

I won't use an exclamation point if it can be avoided. There are time, though, when I think it can be used in dialogue. Sometimes when I say things, I can hear the exclamation point at the end. So why not include it when a character says something? I think it's okay!

(Remember the Seinfeld episode where Elaine edited her boyfriend's book manuscript and filled it with exclamation pints? Hilarious.)

Kate S said...

I've never tried reading my dialogue aloud. Maybe I'll give it a shot.

A former cheerleader, Stewart. And a bigger pain in the (insert appropriate rude word) you couldn't find.