A Quick Observation about Writing Dialogue

Most of the advice on the web about writing dialogue is far from novel.  Some of it is sound, of course, but much of it is the sort of conventional wisdom that is repeated time and again without anyone actually examining it.

You’ll often hear it said, for example, that a writer should use “said” instead of other dialogue tags. Sound advice…sort of, because good writers don’t use “said” all that much either. If this is news to you, look again and be shocked at just how rare it is to tag dialogue (if you’re a writer, you may not even realize how rarely you use it). Consider the following example that I dreamt up for illustrative purposes:

Frank looked on impatiently as the fat pawnshop owner inspected the watch.

“How much you want for it?”

“Two grand.”

“I’ll give you five hundred.”

“You kiddin’ me? I paid five grand for that watch.”

“Five hundred. Take it or leave it.”

“Look. You can sell that watch tomorrow for three grand. We both know that. Gimme at least a grand for it.”

“Okay. I’ll give you seven-fifty. Final offer.”

“Alright, you chiselin’ pr*ck. I’ll take seven-fifty.”

Brilliant stuff, I know. But notice how the context makes it easy to follow who said what to whom without tagging.

Hold on, you say. Will this work more generally? Yes, because most dialogue takes place between two people, each speaking in turn. So better advice would probably be to avoid dialogue tags altogether if you can.

ADDENDUM (July 28, 2011):

Merrill Heath pointed out in a comment on this post that he made much the same observation on his blog, which made me think I should elaborate on something.  When I said “conventional wisdom,” I meant the kind of web content that gets rehashed from site to site, and thus comes to dominate search results. In my experience, writing handbooks and blogs with advice by writers are more informative and more accurate than the most visited websites. The reason, of course, is that the provision of general information and a broader variety of it are more likely to generate hits than in-depth and more particularized content.  Hence, the new writer is more likely to find the conventional wisdom before the useful knowledge.  And that was my reason for writing this post; it was not to suggest that I had some special insight heretofore unseen by the eyes of mankind.

He also raised a related bit of advice: that the measure of a writer is his ability to write good dialogue. I’ll discuss this on another occasion.

(Note that Merrill Heath also has other useful, practical information on writing mechanics for those interested.)



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