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Monday

Snappy Dialogue

Today I want to talk about something that relevant to all writers, no matter the genre, and that is dialogue. I read an excerpt yesterday from Denise Hunter's newest book, and one line in particular stood out to me. In between the dialogue itself, one of the characters crossed her arms.

Now, the first time I read this, the detail slipped passed me (and I tend to be a very OCD reader). I think it's because we often read through the space in between the quotes more quickly than we read the quotations themselves. But even still, I had this feeling in my gut that her character wasn't happy about something, that she was closed off. That's the power of a well-used dialogue tag.

So how can we achieve this effect for our readers, even if they don't consciously realize our characterization strategy?

1) Be intentional about dialogue and its setup. The dialogue itself is very important, yes. But so is the space between what the characters say verbally. What are they saying non-verbally? Are they sitting down, looking off, rolling their eyes, fidgeting their thumbs? These things matter because they give us a particular way to interpret the dialogue.

2) Be specific. The more specific you are with dialogue tags, the better. Having a character sip of a melty Coke float gives us a lot more imagery than having a character raise their overly-glass.

3) Use characterization. Use dialogue tags as a way to express a character's unique traits and quirks. Ever notice how in real life some of your friends do the strangest things? Maybe they talk with their hands or make this funny "I don't know what you're talking about" face. Give those kinds of traits to your characters too so that you not only make them likable and unique, but you also make them realistic.

4) Subtext. Dialogue tags or beats are an excellent opportunity for subtext and for letting your reader know if he/she should trust what your characters say. So you may, for instance, have a character verbally say "I'm fine" while tapping their foot against the bottom of the table. Dialogue tags can add great layers to what is verbalized by the characters.

What other aspects of dialogue tags do you think are important or helpful to note? Do you find you enjoy writing them?

6 comments:

  1. Soooo true. Thanks for the reminder. I feel all excited now to go and get some character details into my MS.

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    1. Freya, thanks so much for stopping by and for sharing that! I am glad the post encouraged you to get some fun details in to your MS. I know that feeling, and it's great to get that bubble of excitement about your story. Usually happens to me after drinking milkshakes. Have a good day!

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  2. I've been thinking a lot about dialogue lately. I think sometimes I tend to use too many tags instead of letting the dialogue flow. It's just a matter of figuring out when to do that and when to use to tags.

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    1. YES! Lindsay, I do that too. My critique partner Angie is a big help to me in telling me how she hears it. Something that has really helped me is to consciously consider the pace at which I want my reader to look at a particular section. If the conversation is moving really quickly--maybe some shocking revelation is happening, for instance--I take out most of the tags so the reader zips through the dialogue (because really, don't we as readers do that anyway?). And that way the format matches the intended reader response. But if I want someone to take a bit of time to really work through a particular passage, maybe to slow down the narrative, give the reader a chance to catch their breath, or even show depths of my characters, I'll include a lot more tags and description. But tags are a great way to remind the reader who is speaking without having to keep reiterating something like "she said." Hope you're having a good day! :)

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  3. After a character says something, I especially like following with what they are thinking...maybe it's something that is too harsh or too insecure to say outloud...perhaps they contradict what they say to show an internal struggle. Does that make sense? Good post, Ashley!

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    1. Yes, that makes perfect sense, Angie, and I think that's a really good strategy! I once went to a workshop where they explained how your character should have responses to dialogue, both external responses and internal responses. They don't need both each time, but you need enough of both to really round off the character. And I love when characters contradict what they've said out loud because it helps us identify with them so much more!

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