Sunday, January 13, 2013

Things Writers should know, Tip #1

Writers look at words differently. They see the syntax, the word choices, and the development of characters. They like to break down plots, and admire world building. Reading through the eyes of a writer is a double-edged sword. I now often find myself putting a book down in frustration. Where once the story shone through, I now see passive sentences, comma errors, repeated words ad nauseum, and plot holes. It's frustrating at best.

For me, I think this trait is getting worse simply because I'm now teaching writing and helping a few authors hone their writing chops. As I run across something that drives me crazy, I thought I'd share it here. 

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Tip #1 --For the Love of Mike, look at your dialogue tags!

Dialogue is a tricky thing. Not only does the character's voice have to shine through, but the reader has to be clear regarding who is doing the talking. Lately, it seems the books/WIP's I've read are choppy, using unimaginative ways to show who is speaking. Here are a few tips to help:

Tag only when necessary. When two characters are speaking, it's easy for the reader to discern a conversation, especially when it's fast paced. Limit your tags to when it becomes fuzzy as to who is speaking. 
Layla crossed her arms and took a step back. "Why? How could you?"
"I warned you time and time again. You should've known not to cross me."
"I can't believe you stood there and let them take him away. I hate you!"
Dirk's mouth thinned to a white line. "No, you don't." He made his way to the door. "And you know the word I need to hear. All you have to do is say yes, and I'll have him released tonight."
There's no reason to needlessly tag who is speaking because we automatically know they are bantering back and forth. This is a great way to allow the characters to argue or to have a fast-paced conversation without unnecessary tags getting in the way.

Use what is going on in the scene to help define who is speaking. Let's face it. We live in an ADD world. Everyone is multitasking all the time, so it only seems natural that your characters would do the same.
Karen took a filter from the cabinet and placed it in the top of the coffee maker. "What about Cain?"
"What about him?" John sat at the table, his long legs crossing at the ankles. "He did what he did; now he has to pay the price." 
This naturally slows down the dialogue, allowing the reader to settle into the scene. It also helps keep the reader anchored in the setting and surroundings and adds dimension to your characters. 

Quit saying your characters names in the dialogue. This is one of my biggest pet peeves. No one talks this way .... ever. When there are two people in a room, there's no need for them to constantly say each others name. 
"No, you didn't, Brittany!"
Yes, I did, John. And you know it."
"I know no such thing, Brittany."
"Then why did you come here, John?" 
Annoying, isn't it? I just struggled through a 300-page romance (from one of the big six, I might add) that did this very thing. It drove me insane! If a character needs to call across a room, possibly utter their lover's name in a passionate moment, or cry out as their friend dies in their arms, fine. Use away. But throwing a name in a sentence as a way of making sure the reader knows who is speaking is weak writing. And it annoys the heck out of the reader!

Said is not dead! This one's a biggie. The growing trend at the moment is to try and not use the word "said". This goes along the same lunacy as "never use an adverb", or "the Oxford comma is no longer acceptable." Who thinks up this crap? 

Moderation is key, and, just like the aforementioned adverb, knowing when to use "said" and when not to is an art form all its own. Here's the thing, your brain glosses over this word just like it does, "a", "and", and "the." When used correctly, the reader doesn't even register that you've used the dreaded "s" word. I love using "said" sprinkled throughout dialogue, especially in tense or tender moments when I need to clarify who's speaking without drawing the reader's eye away from what is being said. Should we use whispered, croaked, whimpered, thundered, growled, hissed, etc.? Absolutely. But only when it's needed to add depth to the scene. So often writers throw in descriptive tags just because they think they should, only to cause confusion. 
"John!" she screamed.
He walked across the room, his eyes blazing. "Yes," he growled.
"Why did you do it?" she asked.
His hands balled into fist. "I had no choice," he whimpered. 
There's so much whimpering, growling, asking, and screaming going on here I don't even know where to begin. We have no clue what's going on, nor do we care. 

Finding a good blend of tagging techniques helps brings characters to life. If you're struggling with tags,  take a look at some of your favorite authors. Note how they show which character is speaking. Make a dialogue folder and put your favorite snippets of scenes in it. Steal the technique that you like most and use it. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post! I've read a lot of books that fall into these traps. I agree with everything you said, 100%. Someone once said to me (because I used to do this a lot) that a person cannot growl and talk at the same time. It was something to think about whenever I felt I needed a dialogue tag. And then I read somewhere that most people read right over the dialogue tags anyway. So like you said (pun intended), "said" is not dead!