Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Double Duty by Sharon Hinck

I'm a frugal person, so I appreciate things that serve more than one purpose. I find I’m that way with my writing as well. When we write a scene with dialogue, we need to give cues to our reader about which character is speaking. But there are ways to make those cues serve more than one purpose.

Why just say, “he said” when you can use the moment to REVEAL something about the character’s appearance, tone, emotion, inner life, motivations?

I’m sure you know how to write dialogue identifiers.

“Hello,” she said.

These days, “fancy” identifiers like,
"'Hello,' he retorted" are out of fashion. Even worse: “Hello,” he retorted angrily.

Side note: while this is a general preference for editors these days, that doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally apply a judicious use of a descriptive manner of speech or even a rare adverb. Just know to save that for special occasions. There are craft conventions (I don’t like to think of them as “rules”) – and there are good reasons for most of them – but when it serves the art, there is room to color outside those lines.

While simple dialogue identifiers are best (“said” is virtually invisible to the reader and they slide smoothly past it – which is a good thing for their reading experience), there is an even more powerful way to identify your speaker:


They’re great because they do double duty. They give the cue to the reader about which character is speaking AND they can build characterization or paint the picture of the moment:

“Hello.” She scuffed her toes in the sand, shoulders curved inward like a protective cape.

In the context of the story, this can show you more than, “Hello,” she said.

It’s also valuable to mix it up. Start some dialogue WITH the action tag:

He leaned in, his forehead almost touching hers. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time.”

Not every dialogue paragraph needs to start with the quotation. Play with the rhythm. Scan your page and see if the PATTERN of dialogue and action has become too consistent and rearrange a few. And of course, there will be dialogue exchanges without any dialogue indentifiers needed because you’ve established the two characters responding back and forth and/or they have such unique voices, the reader immediately knows who is speaking.

You can also insert action between longer stretches of dialogue:

“I never knew.” She stepped back, zipped up her jacket, and thrust her hands in her pockets. “I wish you had told me this months ago.”

However, if you string together too many action and dialogue segments, it can become choppy:

George pounded the desk. “I told you to get those figures to me today.” He pushed back his chair and stormed across the office. “I’ll just have to do it myself.” He glared at Frank and thrust a folder at him. “At least take care of this.”

Too many interruptions to dialogue can feel like driving with someone who keeps hitting the brakes.

Of course, interruptions in dialogue are great when it’s another character cutting in.

George pounded the desk. “I told you to get—”

“I did.” Frank held up a folder.

Notice I didn’t say “Frank cut in. Frank interrupted.” Etc. There’s no need to tell the reader that a character interrupted when the m-dash and new dialogue SHOWS that already.

One more note: when you use an action tag that is a complete sentence, it gets a period:

“I told you.” George pounded the desk.

But if you combine an action tag with a dialogue identifier (which you might occasionally do for the rhythm you want) you use a comma:

“I told you,” George said, pounding the desk.

Take time to examine your dialogue segments. See if a thoughtful use of action tags can both identify the speaker AND convey emotion, characterization, or setting.

Write on!

Take time to examine your dialogue segments. via @sharonhinck #SeriouslyWrite


Award-winning author Sharon Hinck writes “stories for the hero in all of us,” about ordinary women on extraordinary faith journeys. Known for their authenticity, emotional range, and spiritual depth, her novels include the ground-breaking 
Sword of Lyric fantasy series and her imaginative new Dancing Realms series, that begins with Hidden Current and continues with Forsaken Island. She has been honored with a Christy finalist medal, and three Carol awards for her novels.