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?