Writing | Dialogue Mechanics

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Dialogue Attribution

Characters in fiction writing often speak―let’s face it, a story would feel strange if the characters never said a word to one another. However, just throwing dialogue down on a page soon becomes a chaotic mess. Authors have a number of techniques at their disposal to control dialogue and keep the reader from getting lost and confused. In the course of reading, editing, and proofreading, I seem to find issues with dialogue mechanics that stand out as a little iffy at best and downright distracting at worst. In a spell of attempting to be all helpful and stuff again, I decided to ramble a bit about dialogue attribution.

— Tags, Beats, and Cues —

Feel free to skip this part if you know the difference between a dialogue tag and a beat. If not, read on! There are three primary means of dialog attribution. Simply put, this means telling the reader who said what. Overreliance on any single technique makes for weak writing. Good dialogue should use a mixture so as not to create a feeling of repetition.

Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag (also known as a ‘saidism’) in its most basic form is the word ‘said.’ Many authors regard ‘said’ as invisible to the reader and as the ideal, perfect, only tag anyone should ever use (with the occasional permission slip granted to ‘asked’). Dialogue tags may also include other words such as yelled, shouted, whispered etc, and are separated from the dialogue by a comma.

Tags can be in front of, behind, or amid the dialogue:

“Meet me at the wharf at six,” said Nigel.

Faye said, “Six? Isn’t that a bit early?”

“Hardly,” said Nigel. “Lassiter wanted us here at five. I managed to talk an hour out of him.”

 

Dialogue Beats

A beat is an action occurring on the same line as dialogue, used to attribute that dialogue to a particular character much like a tag. Beats offer a way to connect a line of dialogue to a character with a sense of flow, especially when you’re looking to convey a sense of the dialogue occuring while action happens. Beats should be separated from dialogue with periods, can occur at the beginning of dialogue, between bits of dialogue, or after:

 

Nigel rolled down the driver-side window. “Oh, bloody… I don’t like the look of that mist.”

“Neither do I.” Faye shuddered, clutching her silver derringer close to her chest. “Something’s wrong.”

“Too late now. We’re past the point of no return and all that.” Nigel opened the door and got out.

 

Context Attribution

The third method of dialogue attribution is contextual. A contextual attribution connects the dialogue to the character speaking it by the context of what is going on around the dialogue or by the words themselves.

Examples of context tagging include:

  • Characters with a distinctive, recognizable speech pattern/accent (the reader will know which character says something if there’s only one character that talks like that). In this example (From Emma and the Banderwigh) the second line of dialogue has an elongated ‘s’ sound, which is a speech attribute of a specific character. Only one character in the book speaks with the ‘s’ sounds elongated, so any line of dialogue with this in it can be context attributed to that character.

 

She struggled to unstick her finger, and pointed at the dead man two feet away. “What about him?”

“Hisss companion killed one of my children.”

 

  • Direct responses to questions, either when a character is addressed by name or if there are only two characters present in the scene.

“What time did Doctor Lassiter say he was going to be here?” asked Faye.

“Six-thirty.”

(Assuming that Nigel and Faye are the only characters in the scene, the answer to the question is assumed to be from Nigel. If the answer is intended to come from the extra-dimensional being in the glove box, you’d need to identify that.)

or

“You never did tell me what her name was, Nigel.”

“Would it have mattered?”

 

Here, the question is directed at Nigel by name. The answer logically comes from Nigel so there’s no need to tag it apart from the context.

  • Dialogue that only one character in a scene could possibly say and would not make sense coming from anyone else. This example is from Prophet of the Badlands. Althea, the main character, has found a malfunctioning android stuck in a creek and is having a conversation with it. The line that begins with “prophet not found” has a speech pattern (short, direct statements plus it ‘sounds’ like a machine talking.) Also, Althea’s mangling of English can also serve as a context tag.

She noticed the gun closer to the water did not spin as fast as the other did, though both still pointed at her. “You want me to help you so you can shoot me?”

“That is correct.”

With a confused face, she ventured a peek. “Why? I am the Prophet.”

“Prophet not found. You are biological contaminant. CRP directive implies removal of biological contaminants from central North America. Please move to within twenty four inches of main unit.”

She stepped out from behind the tree, still clinging to it. “You want me to get closer? Why?”

“Please move within twenty four inches of main unit. Auxiliary contaminant removal system has a maximum effective range of twenty-nine inches.”

She took a cautious step closer. “What is a auximarry taminant system?”

Althea jumped back as a twenty-nine inch blade sprang out of its chest and waved back and forth in the air. “Detachment of biological unit component ‘head’ will result in effective contaminant removal.”

 

In a nutshell, if the reader can tell who is speaking a line of dialogue by the content or the way in which it is said, that dialogue is using context attribution.

 

— Missteps (Double tags, repetitive tags, and bad tags) —

Many new authors seem to have a desire to avoid using ‘said’ at all costs. I’ve worked with some manuscripts where the writer went to great and sometimes awkward lengths to avoid using ‘said.’ While I agree that long patches of dialogue where every line has a ‘said’ is dry as hell, there are some things that should be avoided.

Double Tagging

A double tag occurs when dialogue is attributed twice. The most often situation is when a writer uses both a beat and a tag on the same piece of dialogue. As the purpose of tagging and beats are to attribute the dialogue to the speaker, more than one of them is redundant and unnecessary.

An example of a double tag:

Nigel reached into his coat and grabbed his Webley revolver. “Wait in the car, Faye. This is going to get nasty,” he said.

 

Here, the dialogue is attributed to Nigel by his going for a gun. the ‘he said’ at the end is useless.

I’ve sometimes even seen triple and quadruple tags where ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is used as a reflexive add-on to the end of every spoken line of dialogue. Until the paragraph changes, the dialogue all belongs to the same character. A section of dialogue only needs to be attributed once. Something like this is going too far:

 

Faye leapt from the car and scrambled through the fog by the headlamps. “Nigel?” she asked. “Nigel? Come back,” said Faye. She crept towards the roiling wall of mist where he’d vanished. An hour ago, she’d wanted to kill him―now, she couldn’t imagine losing him. “Nigel!” she screamed. “Where are you?”

 

In this example, there’s 4 tags: the initial beat, asked, said, and screamed. While the screaming tag conveys some additional descriptive elements and might be tolerable, the asked/said are needless since the paragraph starts off with a beat. The above could be rewritten with one tag as:

 

Faye leapt from the car and scrambled through the fog by the headlamps. “Nigel?” She paused, listening. “Nigel? Come back.” She crept towards the roiling wall of mist where he’d vanished. An hour ago, she’d wanted to kill him―now, she couldn’t imagine losing him. “Nigel! Nigel, where are you?”

Only the sound of her own frantic screaming returned from the fog.

 

Bad / Explanatory Dialogue Tags

In the earnest efforts of some writers to avoid using ‘said’ as a dialogue tag, I’ve seen a lot of inventive verbs used as tags. Alas, most of them don’t do well. There are two primary forms of ‘bad tags.’ The first are verbs that do not convey speech and are not dialogue tags. Examples of this would be ‘laughed’, ‘chuckled’ or ‘sighed’ – all three of those are physical actions that are not speaking. More grotesque examples are physical actions such as winced or cringed. Using verbs like these as dialogue tags are clumsy as wincing or cringing (or any other physical action verb) isn’t a mode of speech. People don’t ‘wince’ words. So [“Ouch,” he winced.] does not work.

 

The second form of bad tag is what I refer to as ‘explanatory’ dialogue tags. With these, (many of which also don’t work as tags because they are not ways to speak) the author attempts to use the tag to explain the meaning of the dialogue to the reader. These tags can vary in impression from seeming amateurish to insulting the reader’s intelligence depending on how the reader takes them. Let the dialogue speak for itself and resist the urge to explain. Examples of ‘explanatory tags’ are:

 

“Yes, let’s do that,” he agreed.

“We have to shut down these sub relay breakers first, then we can kill the main. Once it’s off, we can change all these light bulbs,” he explained.

“I think this is an awful idea,” he opined.

“I hate this place. I hate this food. I hate this stupid dress, and I hate you!” she complained.

“No way,” he replied.

 

When a writer thinks the reader needs to be told ‘Yes, let’s do that’ is agreement – it’s like they grab the reader by the ear and force their face up to the page, yelling, “See, he agreed! see! ‘Yes means I agree!” A description of how to change light bulbs is obvious as an explanation, using the tag ‘explained’ here is redundant. Also, you can’t ‘explain’ words, it’s not a mode of speech.

With the ‘opined’ tag, the dialogue is expressing an opinion already. The tag ‘opined’ is unnecessary.

 

In the last example, the character is complaining. The dialogue shows that. There’s no need to beat the reader over the head to make sure they understand that a string of ‘I hates’ is complaining.

“Replied” sits on the fence. Some people find it acceptable, while it often strikes me as a weak tag. If the dialogue tagged with ‘replied’ occurs right after a question, its presence alone constitutes a reply – there’s no need to tell the reader it’s a reply when it is already shown as a reply.

Rote Tags

Many editors believe that ‘said’ is the only true dialogue tag. There is a lot of precedent for this, but some writers can take this too far. When every line of dialogue has a ‘said’ on it, the text is repetitious and stale, and not a lot of fun to read.

 

“I don’t care what this thing is, I’m going to send it back,” said Nigel.

“But, it’ll kill you,” said Faye. “Even if you live, you… won’t be the same.”

“Look,” said Nigel. “You don’t have to follow me if you don’t want to. This is Lassiter’s mess. He opened the gate, and I’m going to close it.”

“I’m going with you,” said Faye.

“No way in hell, babe,” said Nigel. “You’re staying right here.

“I’m not letting you go alone. Besides, I have the amulet,” said Faye.

 

Here, every line has ‘said’ on it. As you can see, it reads like you’re falling down the stairs face first and cheek-slapping every step along the way. The supposedly innocuous ‘said’ becomes not so invisible.

Good tags

So what, you may be asking now, do I think are good tags? Tags that convey a descriptive element and do not attempt to explain or clarify the dialogue. I have worked with a number of editors, some of whom have been strict “use ‘said’ or don’t use anything!” whack you on the knuckles with the ruler types, and others who seemed not to care whatsoever what tags are used. Some would argue the ideal dialogue uses only ‘said’ and ‘asked’ interspersed with beats and context clues.

While ‘said’ is the most accepted tag, it’s also bad to overuse it (see rote tags above). When the need arises to use something else, consider words like: shouted, whispered, yelled, rasped, wheezed, and so on. Be careful to avoid words like ‘growled’ or ‘sighed’, which are sounds/actions unto themselves and not modes of projecting words.

The best dialogue mechanics use a mixture of beats, tags, and context clues to keep the reader immersed and the action flowing. Be wary of overusing the same words, and when in doubt, use ‘said.’

 

Happy Writing,

-Matt

 

** Thanks to Richard Roberts for feedback 🙂

Writing | Character Construction

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Characters are the crux of a story. Regardless of the setting, the characters need to stay true to their sense of identity. Creating believable, memorable characters brings the reader deeper into the environment of a writer’s creation more than world-building alone can do. For me, nothing kills a story like characters who either fall flat or have a weak (or no) sense of identity. When participants in a story lack depth, or their actions seem random with no basis in a constructed psyche, it stands out.

In any story I write, I put a lot of thought into the characters involved. What goes on inside is as important (or more so) than what goes on outside. With a solid character to build on, a writer can throw any scenario at them and have a thorough grasp of how they’d react. Also, it’s better not to dump everything about the character over a reader’s head all at once. Show 10-30% of what you develop for a character, and use the rest as a basis for how the character interacts with others and behaves.

A couple of aspects of character creation that I find helpful are:

Primary Motivation

For major characters, I establish a primary trait or “concept” of what that person embodies. For example, Kirsten from Division Zero: At her core, she is a good soul with a powerful moral sense. She is resilient and has an altruistic nature that causes her to forget about her own safety when someone else is in danger.

The primary trait is the essence of that alternate psyche. Everything the character thinks or does filters through it. Her primary trait (strong moral sense) is a result of seeing into the world after death and the fears and insecurities that knowledge has caused. Others, such as her genuine altruism, are innate qualities.

Another example would be the character Joey from Virtual Immortality. His defining trait is that he is a thrill seeker. His search for an ever-stronger adrenaline rush motivates his actions. To a lesser extent, he’s a slacker―talented but unmotivated, and as much as he won’t admit it, a bit of a softie.

Background

What happened in the character’s past to shape who they are? This question I tend to answer even for minor characters. Take Curtis Warren, the clerk at the cyberware shop in Division Zero. He only appears in one brief scene, however: He’s got a metal arm to replace one he lost while he was serving in the military on Mars. He’s seen enough horrible situations in combat to leave him him unimpressed with things that would scare many people. His wife left him due in part to mental issues from his service, his drinking, and that he spent more time at his shop than at home. He’s got a dog, which he got to fill the hole left behind by the divorce. He’s jaded with a society that isn’t aware a shooting war is going on up on Mars and doesn’t care that he went up there and got maimed for their benefit. He’s a rabid fan of the “Bloodthirsters” Gee-ball team, and has come close to physical violence with anyone who thinks the “Manglers” are better.

Now, most of that doesn’t come out in the story. It sits quiet in the background defining his personality and shaping his dialogue. Even minor characters benefit from a few snippets of background. These little facts weave the character into the world and make them a reflection of their surroundings, deepening the reader’s immersion.

Oftentimes, interaction with a character and their mannerisms can introduce elements of world building in ways more fulfilling than simple narrative. Also, if the character returns in another work or later revisions expand their role you have all the necessary framework to build on.

Arc

At least for the main character, and sometimes a prominent secondary character, I chart an evolutionary arc. What I mean by that is a gradual shift from one state of thought or being to another. I feel that characters should develop over the course of a story and wind up in a different place than where they started. A character that is isolated, lonely, and angry at the start of the story may wind up learning to trust someone by the end, or they may still be isolated and lonely, but no longer angry―as they find acceptance with their situation.

In my opinion, the primary trait that defines a character should not change lightly. However, a character’s nature could change with a severe enough experience. A good-hearted character is not going to turn evil because someone stiffed them for change when they got coffee. If something so trivial sets them off, they weren’t too good to begin with. When characters change, that change should feel natural and be proportional to the experiences they had during the story.

For example, Kirsten from Division Zero starts off loathing religion and anything even remotely connected to it because of the abuse she suffered from her mother. This aspect of her character changes over the course of the series based on her experiences.

Quirks

Sometimes, a little quirk of a character can stand out in a reader’s mind long after they finish the story. These are little idiosyncratic behaviors or traits that everyone has, and goes a long way towards making them feel more like a real person. A character might have a fondness for jalapeños in their egg or love coffee. They might like cats, dogs, or the color puce. Do they have a phobia, a hobby, or a silly habit?

Take Nicole from Division Zero―she is the main character’s friend, but she has a short attention span. She will start a conversation on one topic and go through three more before whomever she’s speaking with can finish reacting to the first one. She is also rather free with her telepathic eavesdropping, and likes to take pictures of suspects who make stupid faces at her whenever she telekinetically yanks their weapons away.

These idiosyncrasies can be superficial or deep. In Nicole’s case, finding amusement in the criminals’ reaction to her gift is something to add humor to life and take her mind away from thinking about how her parents got divorced because they argued over how to raise a psionic child. It’s a mask for guilt, a barrier against the fear of how society looks at her and a facet of her constant attempts to be cute and endearing―she needs people to like her.

Dialogue  – Keeping a character’s dialogue true to who they are is very important. Even small traits in the dialogue can be used to help convey who they are. For example, an arrogant character (like Archon from the Awakened Series) does not use contractions and chooses words that make him sound self-important. Someone like Nicole (who is a conversational scatterbrain) has quick topic shifts, mangles some words, and sometimes abbreviates things never meant to be abbreviated.

For this, I find it helpful to read dialogue out loud and imagine the character speaking like you’re intending. Of course, sometimes this can present its own problems. For at least a week after writing Anatoly Nemsky’s lines from Virtual Immortality, I kept hearing my inner thoughts in a bad Russian accent.

 

In short, the most important part of a story to me are the people, from major to minor and all points in between. Every character I add to a narrative has a constructed psyche and enough history to know who they are. The grandest stage you can build will be useless without believable characters upon it, but even the most drab of setting can be brought to life with memorable characters.

Whenever a situation presents itself to a character, imagine yourself in their place. Consider how you would react in that situation. What is going through the character’s mind at that moment? Once you have your gut reaction, run it through a thought process based on the character’s inner nature and consider how their background would influence them. After that, factor in their quirks, and the result is a genuine reaction of the real person you imagined.

Blog Tour | The Iron Golem

I agreed to participate in the blog tour for “The Iron Golem” a middle grade paranormal that released a few months ago.

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Enjoy Happy Geek Media’s virtual tour of The Iron Golem from the Monster Squad Series!

ABOUT THE BOOK

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The Iron Golem (Monster Squad Series book1) by: Author Christian Page

Published by: New Generation Publishing

Release date: on November 30, 2014

Genres: Middle-Grade, Paranormal, Tween

Pages: 231

Age Level: 8 – 12 | Grade Level: 6 – 8

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Monsters. Mad Scientists. Danger.

Dark forces are converging on the sleepy town of Autumn’s Hallow. Monsters in the woods, mad scientists on the loose and sinister minions lurk. Four young friends must band together to uncover a secret plot that threatens them, the town they live in and the people they love. It’s up to Blaine Davis, Daschle Gaunt, Shelley Merry and Drake Harker, heirs to fantastic powers to stop an evil that threatens to consume the world. Can the Monster Squad thwart the evil Victor von Frankenstein in time? Find out in The Iron Golem, Book 1 of an exciting new series!

**New Generation Publishing’s 2014 Children’s Book of the Year Award Winner**

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THE IRON GOLEM WICKEDLY AWESOME TRAILER

PURCHASE LINKS

AMAZON US/AMAZON UK/KOBO/B&N

FOLLOW THE TOUR HERE

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Christian Page loves stories that combine fun, action and adventure. A father of two, he lives in the Pacific Northwest of the United States with his wife, son, daughter, overly plump cat and under-behaved dog.

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Good luck and happy winning and reading!

Tour hosted by…

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Excerpt:

Mina shook her head. “How much longer, Lonn?”

“The mine should be a few miles down,” the rangy German replied, scanning the horizon. “Peter said to meet us there. He and Ian should be close behind.”

“Good. They should have lights and equipment from the observatory so we can look around.” She looked out the window of the Ford as the dark Roswell valley streamed by. “This could be the find of a lifetime.”

The three had set out from Roswell a half hour earlier after seeing a strange object falling from the sky. After a brief set of goodbyes with friends and family, they set off to chase the UFO, or Unidentified Flying Object, which they estimated had impacted in the far western portion of the valley they called home. They were each researchers working at a US Army Air Corps observatory. Lonn was their boss, a professor of astrophysics at a nearby university. Edge was a visiting professor from Ireland. Mina was a PhD student working at the observatory for her research.

Joining them would be two others. Peter Murphy, the base executive officer and Mina’s recent boyfriend and a strange, weaselly fellow, Ian van Helsing, another PhD student.

“Don’t get your hopes up, Mina,” Edge replied, yawning. “I admit that what we saw in the sky was remarkable… but finding the remains of a meteorite would be extraordinary… still, it beats sitting at home on a lazy Sunday evening!”

Review | How to Date Dead Guys by Ann Noser

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I’ve always been a fan of ghost stories and themes of magic. While I’m betting I’m not the target audience for this book, I found the story well executed and engaging. I stayed up too late reading as I’d lost track of time and wanted to read ‘just one more chapter’ before bed.

For me, characters (and character development) are the most important parts of a story. In How to Date Dead Guys, Ann Noser presents us with Emma Roberts, a meek College freshman who is socially inept, painfully shy, and absorbed in her own world of safe solitude.

Her comfort zone is rattled when she falls in crush with a guy, Mike, but he soon meets a tragic accidental death when trying to swim in a treacherous river that cuts through the campus. Since she was with him that night, and unable to stop his drunken attempt to swim, she blames herself.

Before that, her roommate’s sister had dabbled in witchcraft by casting a love spell, which Emma didn’t much believe in until it seemed to work. Overcome with grief and guilt, she swipes the spell book and tries to bring him back. Her spell ‘misses’ and brings back other people who died in the river. The appearance of the spell book did seem a bit strange – though I got the sense there is a deeper reason for its mysterious appearance (don’t want to spoil, but it seems as though it shouldn’t have been where she found it) which I hope will be fleshed out in one of the next books in this series.

Over the course of the story, Emma’s encounters with the various drowning victims cause her to evolve as a character. She finds courage and purpose in helping others, and the Emma at the end of the book is not the same girl you meet in the beginning.

Ann Noser has done an adept job weaving several subplots together into a well-paced narrative that carries the stories of the victims as well as Emma along to a satisfying conclusion. An excellent debut novel and the start of a series that looks to be quite interesting―part ghost story, part crime drama.

If I had to gripe about anything in this book, it would be minor. Her transition from not knowing thing one about witchcraft to summoning the dead souls back seemed to happen a bit fast. It might have been fun to see her experimenting with some learning―though, that may also have changed the tone of the book, which was overall serious and emotional. Her aptitude with magic felt a little hastened, however the mention of her seeing ghosts early on in life suggests she possesses some kind of latent power. If she already saw the dead, perhaps she could have called them without the spell book and only needed that as a tool to ‘focus her desires’ into the effect. Perhaps this will come out more in the next book.

On a technical note, (perhaps this isn’t an issue to most readers, but it stood out to me) the dialogue attribution made use of frequent awkward and explanatory tags. However, the story’s pacing and the life the author breathed into the characters (even the dead ones) prevented it from being a huge distraction.

The characters felt believable and real, from Emma to the strange cop that seems to know more than he should, to the kindly old retired nurse. The quotes interspersed throughout were a nice touch as well, that built on Emma’s character traits. All in all, this is a wonderful start to a series that looks like it will be a lot of fun to read. I look forward to seeing where Emma Roberts goes from here.

Caller 107 Giveaway

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I’m doing a giveaway to celebrate the nomination of Caller 107 for a Dream award!

 

Two people will each win a signed paperback copy, and one winner will receive a signed copy plus a $25 Amazon gift card.