NCWA welcomes Jeanne Marie Leach in the final Thursday post on Fiction Writing Tips.
Some people are teaching not to use the word said at all. The result is an annoying book filled with ‘clever’ verbs like “retorted”, “screamed”, “joked” etc. Your writing should be strong enough so the mood of the speaker doesn’t have to be explained. It is best to intersperse “said” with other tags and “beats.”
Beats are sentences that break up a dialogue, usually showing action or emotion rather than telling them to the reader.
Here is an example of poorly written dialogue:
“This can’t be right. My son is a good boy,” Mattie insisted. “You don’t believe this, do you, Mister?”
“Name’s Braydon, Ma’am. Cyrus Braydon. It’s not for me to judge whether it’s true or not,” he spat out.
“Then why are you looking for him?” She asked, warily. Then the man’s purpose for standing on her doorstep came to her. “You’re a bounty hunter, aren’t you?”
“Answer me!” she shouted angrily.
“Yes, I’m a bounty hunter,” he said.
She began to cry. “It’s not true! Not one word of it! It’s all lies!” she shouted at him.
Below is the same dialogue the way it appears in my WIP, The Plight of Mattie Gordon. Notice how the emotions are more intense, and the reader gets a clearer picture of how Mattie reacts to this news about her son. I deleted all tags and didn’t use “said,” but used beats instead.
“This…” Her voice became barely more than a whisper. She put her hand to her forehead to rub away the ache forming there. “This can’t be right. My son is a good boy.”
She looked into the stranger’s eyes and saw something that hadn’t been there before. Was it compassion? “You don’t believe this, do you, Mister?”
“Name’s Braydon, Ma’am.” The man tipped his hat. “Cyrus Braydon. It’s not for me to judge whether it’s true or not.”
Mattie helped herself to the rocking chair. “Then why are you looking for him?” With all the force of a locomotive, the realization of the man’s purpose slammed her. “You’re a bounty hunter, aren’t you?”
Mattie’s anger rose within her, and her breathing became shallow and rapid. She wanted to kick him and his calm resolve.
“Answer me!” She jumped to her feet and faced him squarely.
“Yes, I’m a bounty hunter.”
Hot tears now stung her eyes and began rolling down her cheeks. “It’s not true! Not one word of it! It’s all lies!” She plopped backward into the rocking chair.
This is easier to do when there are only two people speaking, but when you have three or more characters talking together, you will need to help the reader keep straight who’s saying which line. You can do this with tags and beats. “Said” is not a bad word, and sometimes is the best way of communicating who is speaking.
Once in a while, you don’t even need tags. Consider the following example:
“Thanks. How much longer is it going to take?”
Cyrus plopped down beside her on the grass and she sat up. He looked everywhere but at her.
“Cyrus, did you hear me?”
“Yes. I heard.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No. I’m thinking.”
“About how I’m going to tell you what I need to tell you.”
Mattie looked at him and frowned. “I’ve trusted you with the whereabouts of my son. Now it’s your turn to trust me.”
You knew exactly who was speaking, and to put “he said” and “she quipped” would have slowed down the scene and made it cumbersome to read. Whenever you can write dialogue without tags and beats, do it. The pace of your novel will flow better.
Unless one particular character’s speech gets too long, keep the speaker’s actions and words in a separate paragraph and change paragraphs when the speaker or actor changes.
Another quandary beginners find themselves in is whether or not to put thoughts in quotation marks. The answer is no. If the thought is a direct deliberation, use italics to set it apart from the rest of the story.
Tammy ran to her room and slammed the door behind her. How dare he say that to me! I’ve never lied to him in my life! She plopped onto her bed, allowing the hot tears to sting her eyes.
Another way to write thoughts is to place them into interior monologue. Switch from the action happening now to the character’s thoughts without sudden changes.
Tammy ran to her room and slammed the door behind her. How dare he say that to her! She’d never lied to him before in her life. She plopped onto her bed, allowing the hot tears to sting her eyes.
** All these are taken from Jeanne’s book, WRITING BASICS FOR BEGINNERS and are copyrighted. **
Jeanne Marie Leach is a multi-published fiction author, freelance editor, speaker, writing coach, and teaches fiction editing. She judges the Genesis Contest and the Carol Awards and has mentored beginning writers, many of whom have gone on to win or final in writing contests and are now published.
Jeanne Marie Leach
Author * Speaker * Freelance Fiction Editor * Writing Coach