Les Edgerton Shows How to Write Amazing Dialogue–Part 1

Les Edgerton

Les Edgerton

Thanks for having me over, Kristen. I love what you’ve done with the drapes! And this is the first time I’ve been served my favorite coffee, Community Blend Dark French Roast with chicory—thank you!

Les was far too street smart to fall for the Free Candy van. But fortunately, he could be bribed with caffeine😀. Since many of you requested a post to teach you how to write great dialogue, I unsuccessfully kidnapped recruited one of the Masters. Les Edgerton is a multi-published award-winning author and his craft books are a MUST HAVE. ALL OF THEM. Take it away, Les!

DIALOGUE

Dialogue is one of the most crucial elements of good fiction writing. For many of us, it’s also one of the toughest skills to master. Some writers have an instinct for writing great dialogue, but for others it takes hard work to achieve believable and interesting dialogue. But, no matter if it comes naturally to you or if you have to work long and hard to be able to create convincing dialogue, it can be achieved by almost everyone.

Because of space limitations, I won’t be able to cover everything necessary to achieve mastery, but will cover many of the main facets.

What Good Dialogue Isn’t—It Ain’t a Q&A

The worst form that a dialogue exchange can take is in the form of a Q&A. That: “Hi, how are you?”

“Fine, how are you?”

“Good. How was your day?”

“It was great. I went shopping and bought a new pair of shoes. What’d you do”

“Oh, I watched TV and took a nap in the afternoon.”

And so on, ad nauseum. On-the-nose dialogue. One of the worst forms it can take. Dialogue becomes even worse when it becomes an info dump. Try always to avoid direct question and answer responses. It’s one of the biggest killers of effective dialogue.

White Space—Subtext

Dialogue is one of the elements in fiction that require lots of “white space” to work well. White space in this discussion refers to what is not on the page. The most important component in great dialogue isn’t so much what’s on the page but what isn’t.

The very best dialogue consists of the subtext. Successful screenwriters realize this probably better than anyone. In fact, one of the chief reasons screenplays get a pass instead of a consider is that the dialogue is couched in Q&A format.

One of the requirements of good dialogue is that it gives the appearance of real speech, not that it imitates it. Real speech is full of ers and ums and hesitations and going off on tangents and dozens of other elements that, if included would destroy its effectiveness.

Listen to a court reporter’s transcript of a trial or better, listen to the taping of criminals when they don’t know they’re being recorded. It’s almost impossible to sort through all of the extraneous baggage real speech carries. Fiction dialogue has to be much, much better than real speech and the aim is only to give the illusion of real speech, not to transcribe it the way actual speech is delivered.

Look at how two people who know each other well converse. It’s chockfull of subtext. Not to mention body language and facial expressions and other physical clues that inform the speech that can’t be delivered on the written page, at least not without coming across as cluttered at best.

Notice how people “talk around” things—especially those topics that are emotional landmines. They’ll say everything but what’s really on their mind. The proverbial “elephant in the room.” That’s subtext. Perhaps the best way to illustrate what subtext is is to provide an exercise I give my classes on that very thing (tomorrow). Writing teachers might find it useful in teaching dialogue.

Other Dos and Don’ts of Good Dialogue

1. Actor’s Business

Don’t give your characters what they call in the stage play arena, “actor’s business.” Don’t have your characters rubbing their noses, lighting up cigarettes, raising their eyebrows, wiping perspiration off their brows… unless it contributes to the scene and represents something other than just giving them something to do with their hands.

Basically, don’t just write things in just to vary the narrative. It’s obvious, it’s amateurish, and it does nothing but make the reader aware someone is writing the story, thereby interrupting the fictive dream.

2. Info Dumps

Don’t use dialog to provide info dumps. In other words, don’t have characters telling each other things they both already know. Real people don’t do that and neither should your characters. Find other ways to deliver necessary info and not via dialog. Also, it just sounds plain dumb… kind of like one moron talking to another moron.

3. Use “Said” for Your Dialogue Tag Verbs, 99.9% of the Time

This is very important. The word “said” has been used so often over the millennia, that it’s no longer seen as a word by readers, but almost as a form of nonintrusive punctuation. As a word it’s become invisible.

Using said for just about all of your tags allows the dialogue to work unimpeded and won’t make the reader aware that a writer is at work, which they’ll realize when they start seeing synonyms for said. Using other synonyms is a red flag to editors who realize they’re reading the work of an amateur and one who hasn’t kept up on the conventions of contemporary fiction.

Those synonyms also include verbs like asked, replied, answered and the like. The reader sees clearly that it’s a question or in reply to a question by the punctuation used and/or from the content or context of the dialogue. About the only exceptions to the word said are verbs such as whispered, shouted, yelled and the like.

And whatever you do, don’t use dialogue tag verbs that are physically impossible! Don’t have your speaker chortling words, for instance. Try to chortle a sentence out loud and you’ll see what I mean.

And don’t feel you have to use dialogue tags for every speaker, every time. Use emotional clues, physical clues, the context of the speech to identify the speaker as much as possible. But, do be sure the speaker’s identity is clear. There’s nothing worse than a reader in the midst of a longish exchange who suddenly doesn’t know who spoke the last line and has to stop and backtrack to figure out who’s speaking!

4. Use Contractions in Your Character’s Speech

Nobody speaks with perfect speech, not even Princeton professors. We all use contractions in speech. Nothing sounds more wooden than perfect speech. The only exception is when you intend to portray the character as a pendant, but I’d be careful even there. Such a character will quickly become boring.

5. Don’t Phoneticize Regional or Cultural or Racial Dialects.

The days are long gone from when Mark Twain phoneticized Jim’s speech. Not done these days. Today, we use an occasional idiomatic word or occasional particular syntax to convey a particular dialect. A word or two used judiciously is all that’s needed. The reader will fill in the blanks in their minds.

6. Don’t Include Housekeeping Details and Minutia in Your Dialogue

In phone conversations, for example, only include the one or two sentences that are important to the story. Don’t include the character dialing, or answering or hanging up the phone. Just end the conversation and only include the truly important dialogue and summarize the rest.

We just don’t need to see the “hellos” and “goodbyes” or the mundane social chatter some calls include. And then end the conversation with a bit of important speech. Don’t show them hanging up. As readers and people who talk on phones often, we kind of know they hung up the phone…

7. Read Authors Who are Renowned for Their Dialogue

Read those writers who are acclaimed for their superlative dialogue. Folks like Elmore Leonard. There’s a reason they have these reputations. Study what they do that makes their dialogue come alive and incorporate those techniques into your own efforts.

There are many other techniques to creating great dialogue, but space restricts how many I can cover here. See you tomorrow for Part Two!

Hope these help!

And, thanks, Kristen, for letting me visit. It was a gas!

Blue skies,

Les Edgerton

Thanks, Les! And we will see you again tomorrow for Part TWO. I love hearing from you guys, so please ask questions or give us your thoughts. Maybe some suggestions for other authors who have amazing dialogue or just a quick THANK YOU to Les for stopping by to help.

ALSO, stay posted because Les is an instructor for WANA International and will soon be offering classes about how to begin your novel–HOOK them in and NEVER LET GO. I will announce when his class is open for registration.

Les Edgerton is the author of HOOKED, THE RAPIST, THE BITCH and others.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

Note: Due to Easter holiday/anniversary…okay video game marathon, I will be choosing March’s winner later in the week, so stay tuned.

, , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by Marilyn Hudson Tucker on April 4, 2013 - 7:30 am

    Awesome info, told well and succinctly. As usual, I will put your link on the SAWG and SARA websites.

  2. #2 by Susan Whitfield on April 4, 2013 - 7:36 am

    An excellent post! Thanks Les and Kristen. I’ll tune in tomorrow for more.

  3. #3 by johnshoulberg on April 4, 2013 - 7:41 am

    Good stuff, thanks. I wish more people would accept and understand No. 3. It’s OK to write “said,” really.

  4. #4 by Chris on April 4, 2013 - 7:41 am

    Great guest post. I feel like dialogue is something I do fairly well, but I would be stupid not to take the advice of a master, haha.

  5. #5 by claudenougat on April 4, 2013 - 7:45 am

    Les, your advice IS a gas! Very useful. And it’s true, the word “said” has become invisible. I like to have dialogue go ahead without even any “said” thrown in, but it can become impossible if you have a 3-way or multiple way dialogue – I guess I mean a conversation! It’s another ball game that requires even greater writing expertise!

  6. #6 by Athena Brady on April 4, 2013 - 7:49 am

    Hi Les, thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.

  7. #7 by jamielynnboothe on April 4, 2013 - 8:02 am

    Thank you Kristen and Les!! This was a great read with my coffee and something educational that I needed to read. I will certainly keep all of this in mind.🙂

  8. #8 by Dennis Langley on April 4, 2013 - 8:04 am

    Any advice on making dialogue more effective is always appreciated. It is tough to get it right and is an often overlooked topic. Thank you for the great info.

  9. #9 by Jan Romes on April 4, 2013 - 8:12 am

    Excellent post! :-))

  10. #10 by L.S. Engler on April 4, 2013 - 8:17 am

    Oooh, these are excellent suggestions! And I’ve always preferred a simple “said” dialogue tag nine out of ten times, but never quite understood why, and this hit it right on the head. Awesome perspective! Thanks for all the tips.

  11. #11 by Stuart Land on April 4, 2013 - 8:19 am

    Perfect advice, Les. I wish more writers would actually heed it.

  12. #12 by TommieLyn on April 4, 2013 - 8:41 am

    Les, I’ll take your advice to heart. Anyone who is not only a fellow Community Coffee drinker, but one who drinks coffee with chicory as well, has to have perfect discernment in other matters, like writing dialogue. Raising a cup of New Orleans Blend Coffee with Chicory in salute!

    • #13 by Les Edgerton on April 4, 2013 - 1:42 pm

      TommieLyn, I love me my Community Blend! New Orleans is my home town and I grew up on it and still have it sent to me here in Indiana. Best coffee in the world!

  13. #14 by jcollyer on April 4, 2013 - 8:54 am

    Some really good tips here and some things I hadn’t considered. I think I’m instincitvely quite good at dialogue: I have been told as such and I find it quite easy to hear my characters talking when I write. I’m by no means a master but it is one of the areas of writing I enjoy more than is a chore, most of the time anyway. However, I still have pitfalls in my technique, however and I always like learning how to improve. I really liked the tips about not using adverbs and just using the word ‘said’. It makes sense now that it’s been spelled out to me, but I was always worried about overusing ‘said’ and thought it was important to vary it to demonstrate your grasp of language and create and impression of the language. But, as Les has implied, the choice of the words and language used by the character should speak for themselves.

  14. #15 by Thomas Linehan on April 4, 2013 - 8:56 am

    I just can’t get enough of the subjects that you cover. My novel is out for edit and I’m reading and listening to what Les is saying and say to myself, “perhaps I should start going over it again.”
    Another great one. Your head must be getting so big.
    Thanks,
    Thom

  15. #16 by Shea Ford on April 4, 2013 - 9:02 am

    Thanks for the dialect clarification! I’ve been fussing over that in my current WIP. I’ve got Irish characters from 1715 talking to ones from 2023. To make it less confusing but reinforce the idea that these people are from different times, I’ve stuck to regular contractions for the modern characters and and none for the older ones except the more stereotypical Irish ones like o’, ’tis, and ’twas. There really are very many of those anyway, so I was wondering if I needed to adjust and start taking off the ‘g’s in their ‘ing’ words. lol I won’t bother with it, because that would probably be too much.😀

  16. #18 by Hannah Katsman on April 4, 2013 - 9:07 am

    I think you meant “pedant” and not “pendant.” (Proud of finding a little mistake in that totally excellent piece).🙂

    • #19 by Les Edgerton on April 4, 2013 - 10:00 am

      Oops. You’re exactly right! Thanks for the catch!

  17. #20 by Kira Lyn Blue on April 4, 2013 - 9:08 am

    Thanks Kristen! This post came at just the right time for me. Anyone have any particular suggestions for authors with fantastic dialogue that weren’t listed in the article?

  18. #21 by Jennifer Smith on April 4, 2013 - 9:09 am

    Great advice! I really enjoyed this post.

  19. #22 by Les Edgerton on April 4, 2013 - 9:11 am

    Glad you folks enjoyed this! These aren’t my great thoughts–I stole ’em from many others. They just make sense. If there are any English or writing teachers out there, tomorrow I’ll share an exercise on off-the-nose dialog that I’ve used over the years and the students always enjoy it as do I. We get some really crazy examples when they create their own.

  20. #23 by tkmorin on April 4, 2013 - 9:13 am

    Thank you for the great lesson. I’m listening. I’ve also gotten lost in conversation in books I read – frustrating! and from authors who have published many books! Thanks again! 🙂

  21. #24 by literalstarvingartist on April 4, 2013 - 9:22 am

    thank you!

  22. #25 by literalstarvingartist on April 4, 2013 - 9:23 am

    Reblogged this on literalstarvingartist and commented:
    a guest blogger from Kristen Lamb (We Are Not Alone); Les Edgerton. He talks about the do’s and don’ts of dialogue… dialogue is a tricky mistress, so i hope some of his advice sticks!

  23. #26 by Rosi on April 4, 2013 - 9:35 am

    This is simply great stuff. I will definitely be linking this one on my blog.

  24. #27 by maegan on April 4, 2013 - 9:36 am

    Great advice, as usual Les! In my opinion, dialogue is one of the most important tools a writer has to breath life and personality into their characters… and no one does it better than you!

  25. #28 by Judith on April 4, 2013 - 9:42 am

    Always love it when Les Edgerton visits. He makes me rethink what I’m doing in my writing. He knows his stuff!

  26. #29 by Carolyn Paul Branch on April 4, 2013 - 9:46 am

    Thanks! This is so helpful, I shared with my critique group.

  27. #30 by Rick Schworer on April 4, 2013 - 9:48 am

    I always root for the sudden death of any character whose speech the author has phoneticized.

  28. #31 by Sheri Fredricks on April 4, 2013 - 9:52 am

    Now that I’ve read (and re-read) this awesome post from Les, I want to tear into my WIP and see what can be fixed. I know I’ve blown it in some places. Thanks for having another great guest on your blog, Kristen

  29. #32 by Katie on April 4, 2013 - 10:06 am

    That said, I have a heck of a fun time reading The Wee Free Men to my kids, because of the phoneticized dialect. But then, Pratchett’s an amazing writer.

  30. #33 by Jackie Vick on April 4, 2013 - 10:12 am

    I almost didn’t read this post because I’ve heard the same thing over and over, but Lee really put together a concise list of advice. Thanks!

  31. #34 by TamrahJo on April 4, 2013 - 10:23 am

    I really enjoy and appreciate reading all the great info here! Thanks, Les – I especially needed to hear the “Said” gem!

  32. #35 by Rebecca Bradley on April 4, 2013 - 10:30 am

    Love this and I’m taking it all away with me!

  33. #36 by swatik6 on April 4, 2013 - 10:46 am

    Hey Kristen, that is a really masterpiece for aspirational writers and editors. Let me say, your blog really really helped me a lot in my first “novel editing” assignment. I am excited yet overtly nervous. O Lord! Please get everything done in a perfect way so that I can see my name on the book. Eagerly waiting for the continuation of this post and it would be a great help if you could refer any of your personal favorites.

  34. #37 by char on April 4, 2013 - 11:13 am

    Great tips Les. You taught me a few new things to look for in my books. Look forward to tomorrow’s post.

  35. #38 by Renee on April 4, 2013 - 11:29 am

    Kristen and Les, Thanks so much for these pointers. As I have matured as a writer, I have found myself applying more and more of what you suggest regarding dialogue, but oddly enough, I had not fully accepted the basic and rudimentary importance of just using “said.” I still find myself questioning–no pun intended–that I should use it for a question. Won’t a critical or self-rightous reader trip up on that and think, “Hey, they didn’t edit that appropriately?” But your point on using said in general does make sense. And I too have long heard that “saids” disappear b/c readers are eye-trained for that word. On info dumps – yes so important. I had early editors point those out in both dialogue and narrative and have worked with other writers on that point too. Your thoughts here are especially helpful to me as I’m writing a book that takes place in Alaska with Eskimos and I put myself in the delicate situation of finding humor in exactly the syntactic blunders that happen between characters when they don’t know each other’s language, yet I have backed off of using too much b/c explaining it or having it appear in every exchange takes readers out of the story. The syntactical humor has taken some additional study of Eskimo languages, but has, so far, been worth it. Your points are so well outlined. You two rock! Thanks, Renee

    • #39 by katemsparkes on April 5, 2013 - 11:52 am

      I agree about the questions. I guess “said” isn’t completely invisible; it trips me up when I see something like, ‘”Where are you going?” he said.’ I’m yanked out of the story as my brain goes, “he asked it, he didn’t say it.” It’s not about being critical, it just trips me up and breaks the flow.

      “Asked” disappears just as much for me (and I suspect for many readers) as “said” does, and I find it flows better when I’m reading. It’s not distracting at all. Maybe it depends on what you’re used to.

      Completely agreed on other dialogue attributions, though. Sometimes characters need to yell or whisper, but often even that is clear from context. I don’t mind writers switching it up sometimes, but when every line of dialogue is grated (?!), rasped, gasped, breathed, or chortled, I’ll stop reading.

      I think of alternative dialogue attributions like spices. They’re nice to have once in a while (though many will never be palatable), but they can’t be the whole recipe. Or even most of it. I don’t think the occasional “she cried” at a dramatic moment has ever pulled me out of a story, but 99% of the time, I prefer “said” or “asked,” or nothing at all unless it’s really necessary.

  36. #40 by Hildie McQueen on April 4, 2013 - 11:44 am

    This is a post I will be returning to read over and again, needed these pointers. Thank you!

  37. #41 by colonialist on April 4, 2013 - 11:55 am

    Strongly disagree on the ‘said’ aspect. Any editor who prefers irritating unbroken repetitions of that word to well-judged use of appropriate synonyms has to have been brainwashed into conforming with the current trend towards laziness in expression. The only reason it becomes invisible is that one forces oneself to ignore the clumsiness.

  38. #42 by Brenda Harris on April 4, 2013 - 11:55 am

    Thanks for the post, Les. I’ve got to go back and check my dialogue. Can’t’ wait for part 2. 🙂

  39. #43 by Barbara on April 4, 2013 - 12:02 pm

    I’m really looking forward to tomorrow! This was very helpful. As a story teller I struggle with dialogue, often unnecessarily. It needs to flow and that is tricky. Thanks for this!
    b

  40. #44 by cicampbell2013 on April 4, 2013 - 12:36 pm

    Oh, dear! I can feel another rewrite coming on! ‘Thanks, Les,’ she said through gritted teeth.

  41. #45 by PaulDBrazill on April 4, 2013 - 12:41 pm

    As always, great advice from Les.

  42. #46 by K.B. Owen on April 4, 2013 - 12:51 pm

    Cool stuff, Les! I especially liked your points about white space and subtext. You’ve given me a lot to think about.😀

  43. #47 by Heather Marsten on April 4, 2013 - 12:57 pm

    Les Edgerton’s dialogue advice is superb. I read his book the Bitch and he definitely practices what he preaches. I am wondering how to work subtext in a dialogue without losing the reader. I guess some things would work, but groundwork would have to be laid for the reader to understand the subtext.

    • #48 by Les Edgerton on April 4, 2013 - 1:40 pm

      Good question, Heather. I think after you see the exercise tomorrow, you may find your answer. The example I give in it doesn’t use any setup or background or backstory at all to make the subtext clear, as I think you’ll see. If you still have a question after reading it, I’d be delighted to try to answer it, okay?

  44. #50 by jokelly65 on April 4, 2013 - 1:30 pm

    great post, but when you talk about actors business, I have seen it used to show particular habits of a character which can be used to express subtext as well. so is there an exception to the rule or should it be avoided during character conversation and placed some other place in the story.

    • #51 by Les Edgerton on April 4, 2013 - 1:37 pm

      Good question, Jokelly! This kind of thing is what I was referring to when I said:

      …unless it contributes to the scene and represents something other than just giving them something to do with their hands.

      What you’re describing fits perfectly in there. The actor’s business I referred to is named that because it’s all it’s designed to do–give a character something to do physically while delivering his lines. When there’s another purpose, it’s absolutely fine. Hope that helps!

      • #52 by jokelly65 on April 4, 2013 - 1:45 pm

        now that I feel like a total Dimwit for somehow missing that part, I will slink away to find a rock to live under. LOL. thanks for the reply. being guilty of the mustache twirling action scenes during a conversation, I find I have far to go before I can call myself a writer.

        • #53 by Les Edgerton on April 4, 2013 - 3:35 pm

          lol! You’re not a dimwit at all, Jo! Most of us practice selective reading, including moi! I do try to include qualifiers in statements and not make all-inclusive statements as there are always exceptions to everything. Also, I can see by a single sentence you wrote that you are, indeed, a writer. If a person can write one good sentence, that means they can write two, and that means they can write thousands and thousands of good sentences. So… take that! I see a writer at work in your sample and a pretty good ‘un…

  45. #54 by laramcgill on April 4, 2013 - 1:47 pm

    Can’t wait for tomorrow. Thanks, Les, for your great words.

  46. #55 by dinavidscuitee on April 4, 2013 - 2:53 pm

    I definitely have a problem with the “synonyms of said” thing.

  47. #56 by Louise on April 4, 2013 - 3:46 pm

    Some great tips there…thanks for sharing them with us!🙂

  48. #57 by Daniel Escurel Occeno on April 4, 2013 - 5:08 pm

    My psychic feedback had been to get me to write a novel on a single narrative with hardly any dialogues or none at all. I prefer the dialogues. I am assuming; they are mystery writers trying to get me to write in a story telling mode. The debate continues in my mind of whether to try a single narrative, but I like developing the characters. It could be romance writers as well since I am a male writer in a predominant female romance writing industry. Dialogues for now on the WIPs, which were started already, and outlined ready to be written is what I plan on doing.

    [3. Use “Said” for Your Dialogue Tag Verbs, 99.9% of the Time.]

    “I agree for adult fiction, but the substitutions were recommended for in writing stories for children,” smiled Daniel.

    I am using “said” and “asked” only.

    One writer instructor taught to keep it simple and you will keep them reading.
    Sometimes too many “it is assumed” leads to confusion as well for those not so brilliant.

  49. #58 by rtd14 on April 4, 2013 - 6:28 pm

    Kristen, thank you for sharing a great post again. So much has changed with contemporary fiction, and much of his advice I’ve been fortunate to learn through the years. It is always good to be reminded. I use says or said just as I did as a journalist. The tricky thing is: How do you still show a character’s personality, even with the smallest detail, with what seem like restrictions? For example, I’ve stripped most of my manuscript of dialect two years ago, but a millworker isn’t going to speak in the same manner as a teacher. I go with it, but I don’t always agree. I still love Mark Twain, but I do read a lot of contemporary authors who are great with dialogue.

  50. #59 by lucasesch on April 4, 2013 - 8:06 pm

    Thanks for all of the advice. Now I’m off to scramble through my own stuff and check dialogue…

  51. #60 by tyroper on April 4, 2013 - 8:47 pm

    Wow! This is a great post. Thank you.

  52. #61 by kenlizzi on April 4, 2013 - 9:13 pm

    Spot on. And Elmore Leonard is indeed the gold standard.

  53. #62 by melissajanda on April 4, 2013 - 11:56 pm

    Thanks for the advice, Les. I purchased Hooked yesterday and am looking forward to reading more of your words of wisdom!

  54. #63 by Dawn Chartier on April 5, 2013 - 8:07 am

    Great tips, Les. Thanks. The only thing with the “he said, she said” is when listening to an audio book (on the radio). I get sooooo tired of hearing the narrator say, “he said, she said” Grrr. Why can’t they just skip it all together?

  55. #64 by xplorexpress on April 5, 2013 - 9:32 am

    Hello Les and Kristen.

    Well, like many of the 62 commentors before me, this “said” stuff annoy me. Repetition of the same word is redundant to a reader and I try to avoid it as much as possible. So, this part of your wonderful advices makes me unconfortable. I will try it though, and see. But, if we separate long dialogues with few sentences describing the evolution of the conversation, the movements of the protagonists, the silences and even, the body language in short and concise words… then… maybe the “said” could be limited to the minimum?

    Thank you Les, you’re the most interesting🙂
    and thank you Kristen to have found the right kind of coffee to attract him🙂

    By the way, I love chicory in my coffee

    • #65 by lesedgerton on April 5, 2013 - 10:04 am

      I appreciate your take on the dialog verb “said,” xplorepress, and it’s not uncommon. I suspect it stems perhaps from many years of teachers teaching units on using synonyms for said, ingraining it into our psyches. However, English is a living, mutating language and changes constantly, as do tastes in literature. This is just one of those changes and change is often difficult for most of us, me included! My experience with students over the years who’ve resisted it is that they give it a try and usually accept using said after time. It truly has become a word most readers no longer see as a word, but more as a form of punctuation. When synonyms begin to appear, they become noticeable and remind the reader that a writer is at work and that’s not good. To create the fictive dream, the writer needs to disappear and whenever we remind the reader that there’s an author behind the narrative, that dream has been interrupted. Today, among contemporary agents and editors and readers, the word said has become largely invisible, while words like replied, asked, answered, and the like, all kind of jump out out as somewhat musty residue from a former era in letters. Kind of like that “Dear Reader” in the Victorian era, which, of course, is no longer used since it clearly tells us there’s a writer at work by addressing the reader directly. Does this make sense? The thing is, we may like a certain style of writing, but if it stands out because it’s somewhat archaic, that only tells editors that this is a writer who is a bit stuck in the past and it’s extremely important to know and use contemporary usages to have a better chance of being published.

      Also, repetition of a certain word, like you say, isn’t a good thing, but I submit that this applies not to a word like said, which really is invisible to most readers, but to words like “plethora” used twice in the same passage.

      Also, any dialog tag–including “said”–can wear quickly on the reader’s perception as you correctly pointed out, and that’s why I recommend using any tag sparingly and look for emotional, contextual, physical and other clues to identify the speaker as much as possible. Indeed, there’s another change coming in dialog where no tags are used at all and we see it more and more, which means… it’s a’comin’! It’s very difficult to achieve, but the fact that there are contemporary authors who are creating remarkable fiction with few or no dialog tags means that we’re just going to have to work harder at mastering the technique.

      I appreciate your opinion and you pose worthwhile considerations. All I can say is give it a try for a time and then reevaluate your work. Perhaps ask a trusted writer friend to judge the same passage, one with synonyms and one with said (don’t tell them what you want them to read it for other than to say, “Which one do you think reads best?” I think you’ll be surprised at the response.

      Your comments are well-reasoned and more importantly, you show a willingness to be open to things like this and that’s invaluable for a writer! Thank you.

      And, I love it that you appreciate chicory! I’m up here in Yankeeland where they know nothing about good coffee!

  56. #66 by brendamarroy on April 5, 2013 - 10:07 am

    Thanks, Les. I appreciate the helpful tips. Thanks Kristin for including this in your blog.

  57. #67 by wilsonkhoo on April 6, 2013 - 9:26 am

    Great article!

  58. #68 by Irma on April 6, 2013 - 11:47 am

    Great post! Lots to think about while I sip my chicory-less coffee. And I agree with primarily using the word “said” as a dialogue tag, when you do use tags. Many times the dialogue flows best without any intrusive little speed bumps.

  59. #69 by pamelacreese on April 6, 2013 - 8:15 pm

    Thank you
    Personally the repeated use of ‘said’ has never been invisible to me. lt yanks me right out of the story. This is very frustrating.

  60. #70 by jwtroemner on April 7, 2013 - 8:36 pm

    Thank you for this fantastic post. I was actually recently looking through my current WIP and trying to figure out how to beef up the dialogue to really leave an impact– this is great advice.

  61. #71 by chitrader on April 8, 2013 - 8:34 am

    Good stuff, Les. I think great dialogue can turn an average novel into a best-seller. Always helps to refresh one’s mind on dialogue dos and don’ts.

  62. #72 by darcyflynn on April 8, 2013 - 10:32 am

    Les, From one Community coffee drinker to another, great post! Thank you for the clarity about using ‘said’ over the other words I sometime use, thinking I should for variety’s sake. I’m going to use Find and Replace on Word, and take care of those right now!🙂

  63. #73 by billgncs on April 8, 2013 - 5:36 pm

    this was excellent, I begin to see how much I don’t know. What are the current “craft books” that are highly regarded?

    • #74 by Les Edgerton on April 8, 2013 - 6:34 pm

      The craft book I personally think is the best one ever written is Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction.” (Any edition)

  64. #75 by Peter Koevari on April 8, 2013 - 7:31 pm

    This is awesome advice! And lots for me to take on-board with my current manuscripts. There is one question I have for Les, Kristen, et al:

    So, if a character asks a question, or replies to a question, then we just say, said?

    Ie. “Les, was what I asked correct?” said Peter.

    Feels a bit wierd, but I suppose that they are still saying something, even if it is a question. I am thinking that I now need to go through my manuscripts and replace every single tag of anything but said, with said, and then change it to be [Name] said LOL would that be a fix-all, and cover-all to any situation?

    • #76 by Les Edgerton on April 8, 2013 - 7:39 pm

      Good question, Peter. And the answer is: yep. Except, you used what’s considered an archaic tag construction these days. Instead of “Les, was what I asked correct?” said Peter–today, it would be: “Les, was what I asked correct?” Peter said.

      We know from the context of the question and the punctuation that it’s a question, so to say “Peter asked” is a bit redundant and also a subtle form of dumbing it down for the reader since it’s clear he asked the question.

  65. #78 by David Erickson on April 10, 2013 - 10:27 am

    Interesting that I was just having an email conversation with a writer who’s story i’d just critiqued about dialogue tags. I pasted Les’ comments in a reply email.

    I like dialogue tags other than ‘said’. When someone asks a question, I like to see, ‘he asked’ rather than ‘he said’. It just seems to fit better. Or other terms that describe or infer the speaker’s emotions or actions.

    It just feels stilted when most dialogue tags are ‘said’. But I guess that’s just me.

  66. #79 by Anthony on August 19, 2013 - 3:19 am

    Dialogue of any description, including subtext, had always been my problem when it came to writing fiction. The story was fine, the plot more than adequate, but all the characters sounded like the Queen! I managed to get out of this by writing the story through dialogue first, then editing out all the superfluous chatter, replacing it with narrative and subtext.
    Many thanks for this excellent advice.

  1. Les Edgerton Shows How to Write Amazing Dialogue–Part 2 AN EXERCISE | Kristen Lamb's Blog
  2. Sharing alert! | Joan Leotta
  3. Emotive Dialogue | Writing Is Hard Work
  4. Writing Resources 6 April 2013 | Gene Lempp ~ Writer
  5. Using Dialogue More Effectively | Wilson K.
  6. Mind Sieve 4/8/13 | Gloria Oliver
  7. Monday Mentions: Thrillers, Hedgehogs & Bats | Amy Shojai's Blog Monday Mentions: Thrillers, Hedgehogs & Bats | Bling, Bitches, and Blood
  8. Literary link - How to write amazing dialogue | Literary Bits
  9. J is for Jannock, Jasperated, and Julep (and Thirsty Thursday) | Writing, Reading, and Life
  10. Happy Two Month Old Blog! | Wilson K.
  11. “This dialogue sucks,” he said. | Author D.J. Lutz
  12. Les Edgerton Shows How to Write Amazing Dialogue–Part 1 | All About Writing: Blog of Author Tracy Kauffman
  13. He Said, She Said: Dialogue Tags and Saidisms | Jen's Pen Den
  14. Monday Mentions: Thrillers, Hedgehogs & Bats | AMY SHOJAI'S Bling, Bitches & Blood

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: