Dialogue, glorious dialogue – Instalment 3 of the Dialogue mini series

Butter and a butter knife

Butter and a butter knife (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dialogue in books is like butter spread on bread. Some like a lot of it. Some don’t. If you do, good for you! It might make you fat but surely also happy. If you don’t, well, what do you like? A drop of extra virgin olive oil, or nothing at all? OK, this is a rather contorted metaphor, but one I’m clinging onto for now. Cling on guys and girls, I’ll get to the point.

Dialogue makes it for a breezier read: less dense and more engaging. I must like my bread extra buttered because my book – which incidentally is nearly there! – is greasy with it. Now that I’m close to the editing stage, I have turned my ever so critical eye to myself and my own use of dialogue.

The main challenge when most of one’s text is dialogue, is how to avoid the inevitable repetition of: he said, she said, he said, she said and so on. Stephen King in ‘On Writing’ recommends not to beat about the bush and to use ‘said’ 9 times out of 10. Whilst I will not – on this occasion! – challenge one of the most successful writers in recent decades, I will respectfully beg to differ. Let’s bring the ratio down to, say, 5 every 10 times. How?

  1. In most cases there is little need to clarify that something has been said. It’s obvious by the inverted commas. Although, don’t you just hate it when this principle is pushed to the extreme and you lose the thread of who was saying what? I’m talking respectful authors here, not pulp fiction! I’ve sometimes found I had to start from the beginning of the dialogue and count: this is what this guy said, this is what the other said, and then again the first one, and the second, until I understand.
  2. In other cases I add a description of what somebody is doing, put a nice full stop at the end of the description, and bang! There goes the dialogue that refers to that character. Random example:

He massaged his scalp. His headaches were getting worse. ‘Have you got an aspirin, please?’

‘I do, actually. There you go, darling!’

‘Thanks,’ he said, wondering why his wife always kept so many drugs in her handbag…

3. Other times I go for the not so popular option of – shock horror – use of alternative verbs! Random example:

‘Stop doing that, you fool,’ she bellowed (or yelled, or shouted, or screamed…you get the point.)

‘But I’m in soooo much agony after you smacked me in the face with your stupid umbrella!’ he cried (or moaned, or complained, or answered, or…again you get the over baked pudding.)

I’ve embraced option 3 with a little too much enthusiasm. It took a good 10 people – some great guys and ladies at a local writers’ group I recently joined – to pull me out of my compulsive behaviour.

I even managed to use the verb ‘to sigh’ as an alternatives to ‘say’! How lovely though it sounded; it was smooth, and delicate and soft and everything pink, but grammatically incorrect. Shame.

In my editing phase I’m doing my best to use all three options, and if something is unclear I can always resort to SAID without boring myself to death. 55,000 words are too many for ‘said’ to be used too frequently, Mr King, so thanks for the advice, but I’ll pass on this one. All other suggestions in your wonderful book are simply glorious, and for this I thank thy.

Cover of "On Writing:  A Memoir of the Cr...

Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Dear fellow bloggers and readers, I know some of you are writing your own books. How much butter do you like on your bread? Any advice is, as always, gratefully received.


About ofglassandbooks

Who, me? A fan of good reads and glass jars experiences; budding fiction writer in the very little and spare time available...
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5 Responses to Dialogue, glorious dialogue – Instalment 3 of the Dialogue mini series

  1. Oh, there is definitely no advice from me. I honestly don’t know which method/combination works best. Very few tags when I’m reading is confusing for me. I am definitely a he said/she said writer. I may not have it just right, but I was consistent across all of my books, and I think that consistency gave my books a rhythm in dialogue. One of my blogger friends agrees with not using verbs in tags — “Get off my back,” she snapped. — She insists words cannot be snapped, but I like using verbs in tags. However, I try not to use them excessively. The worst tags I’ve ever seen in a published book were where the person was identified by name in every tag. I only made it three pages in before I had to quit reading.

  2. Maddie,
    thanks for taking the time to share what works with me. I like your approach, and especially the point on consistency. Dialogue gives a character his or her tone, and as the novel develops into a sea of words and chapters, that tone should be consistent throughout the book. Say one of the charaters is a child, he or she is not suddenly going to express him/herself as an adult half way through just because I need them to as an author! Hard though…
    Congratulations on your top 100 Amazon download achievement! Downloading your latest book is on my to do list, which will be done by Sunday!!! Thanks again. Looking forward to more of your comments!!

  3. Pingback: Books, glorious books … and A.L. too | Call of the Siren

  4. Pingback: Using Dialogue More Effectively | Wilson K.

  5. Pingback: “This dialogue sucks,” he said. | Author D.J. Lutz

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