Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Integrating Dialogue and Action

Recently a writer asked how to make his dialogue more interesting. He found having characters speaking, interspersed with "he said" and "she said", felt repetitive. Yet these dialogue tags are necessary for a couple of reasons. They show us who is speaking and provide a break in the narrative. While ideally dialogue tags are supposed to be invisible (the eye runs over "he said" and "she said"), just like any other overused convention, they can become tiresome to the reader.

But effective dialogue does much more than delineate the speaker. How can you balance the need to know who’s talking when, without the text becoming boring?

Let's look at an exchange that uses only dialogue and simple tags:

"Did you talk to Gino?" asked Starla.
"Naw, haven't seen him yet," said Cinnamon.
"Better watch out. He's on the rampage. Wants his money bad," said Starla.
"Right now I have bigger problems to worry about," said Cinnamon.

What does this exchange tell us? Two individuals named Starla and Cinnamon are talking about a man named Gino, who wants his money. But a lot of information is missing. Where are they? What's happening? Also, the identical structure of each paragraph (dialogue followed by "said [name]" or asked [name]") becomes wearing on the eye. And there's no action, just static dialogue. Boring.

Here's that exchange with more information worked in. Notice also how additional cues are used to show who's speaking:

Starla leaned over the old coot's chest, reaching her arms around to the bar on either side of him. She shook her shoulders lazily. Tuesday lunch was the worst shift, and Denise was a jerk for sticking her and Cinnamon with it. So petty.

The gin-soaked geezer was paying attention to her assets, not her mouth, so she might as well discuss business. She called over her shoulder, "Did you talk to Gino?"

"Naw, haven't seen him yet." Cinnamon craned her neck around to face Starla.  She waved her backside at the twenty-something bling factory on the neighboring stool, her long legs stretched out in front of him.

"Better watch out," said Starla. "He's on the rampage. Wants his money bad." The geezer exhaled his martini breath at her and reached out a shaking hand. Why did they ever think that was a good idea? She slapped it away.

The fellow with the bling opened his wallet then turned it upside down and shook it, shrugging. Cinnamon rolled her eyes. "Right now I have bigger problems to worry about."

Now we have a much more complete picture. The addition of action (Starla leaned, reaching, shook her shoulders) provides movement to the scene. Starla and Cinnamon’s actions also show us that they’re at work, and the nature of their profession. From the visual cues (the bar on either side of him, the neighboring stool), we see the setting. And sensory details (exhaled his martini breath) pull us further in.

We also get a sense of the characters’ attitudes toward their work and current clientele. Starla shakes her shoulders lazily. Cinnamon rolls her eyes at the guy who’s stiffing her.

By including Starla’s thoughts, we also establish that she’s our point of view character. (Denise was a jerk. So petty. Why did they ever think that was a good idea?)

The shift in action makes it clear who’s speaking throughout. In place of a typical dialogue tag, in paragraph two, Starla calls over her shoulder. This adds more action. All this, and “said” only appears once!

Note that you can go overboard with description in dialogue. Depending on the pacing of the scene, sometimes a few quick exchanges with no interspersed action can work. But if you feel like you're watching a ping-pong match when your characters speak in long, uninterrupted blocks, try and break it up.
Dynamic dialogue incorporates action, setting, thought, sensory details, and more to create a rich reading experience. Next time you’re hung up on “said” and “asked”, look for ways to work in these elements.

How do you add vibrancy to your dialogue? Where do you get tripped up? If you have a question about writing you’d like me to answer, shoot me an email at faithvanhorne [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks for reading!

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