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  1. Kseniya
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    Kseniya New Member

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    Dialogue - How much should you explain it?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Kseniya, Aug 10, 2011.

    I read this great article titled "Why You Shouldn’t Explain Your Dialogue, Most Of The Time". It gives some excellent rules of thumb on "he said"s and on not over using adverbs, etc. I found it both, informative and pertinent. I constantly struggle in my writing and editing with whether I am doing too much or too little explaining. Having some sane guidelines is a great help. Having said that, I have a question.

    There’s a guideline of my own that I derived, but I feel sure it is not always applicable. I’d love an opinion on it. While participating in a mini writing workshop some years ago, I read a piece of my writing out-loud. My written dialogue was pretty good and self-explanitory when viewed on a page. For that reason, I left out “(s)he said” in most places. However, when it came to reading out loud, I found myself inserting explanations and attributions to make it clear to the audience who was talking, regardless of my abilities (or lack thereof) to do theatrical voices. This launched me into an ill-advised storm of scattering “he said”s every place I could. I eventually reversed most of those panicky insertions. Then, years later, the Kindle came along. I now do most of my reading by listening to text-to-speech while driving to and from work. It’s wonderful. However, it reinforces my older point. An automated voice is doing the reading. I can’t see the page to identify where a new paragraph starts, which lets a reader know that the soap box must have passed. Listening to the same text, you do sometimes miss those unexplained transitions. I mostly read excellent writers and they handle dialogue so I am not usually lost. However, I wonder about my own writing. I test read it via text-to-speech, too, prior to editing. Then I think about parents reading to their kids and I become convinced that the function of written communication is to record verbal audible content and then to give it back with equal clarity.

    So, here’s my question: Is it a good rule of thumb that you should insert “he said” or other (action) queues to clarify who is speaking according to what you’d need for a LISTENER to follow you, rather than a READER? If you do this, is it bound to be too much and to annoy a READER?

    Thanks,
    Kseniya
     
  2. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've thought about this problem too, when considering reading some of my stories onto audio files. I decided to keep unnecessary speech tags out of my written text, and add them as needed if I ever made an audio file.
     
  3. James Scarborough
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    James Scarborough Member

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    Well-written dialogue doesn't just advance plot, it also reveals character and relationships. While you want it to seem natural, well-written dialogue usually isn't natural at all. It's highly crafted, leaving out most of the dull, repetitive, uninteresting speech that permeates real-life conversation.

    If you look at dialogue as a tool and use it effectively, you shouldn't have too much trouble attributing dialogue to individual characters. Keep it simple, short, and clear. Use dialogue to reveal differences between individual characters as well as to develop relationships among your characters and to move your story along.

    Break up dialogue with action and narration. Long passages of pure dialogue are usually boring, confusing and unnecessary. If you keep your speech tags simple as suggested in the article you referenced, readers usually skip over most of the tags without even noticing them but they still serve the purpose of being sure your reader doesn't get lost or confused as to who's speaking.

    I usually stick with simple speech tags such as "said", " asked" and "replied", avoiding other synonyms, adjectives, etc., in attributing speech to my characters. Even those I use as sparingly as possible, prefering to break up my dialogue with action or narration.
     
  4. lostinwebspace
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    lostinwebspace Active Member

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    I agree with James Scarborough. You shouldn't have to use adverbs within a dialog tag. I hesitate to say "never," but I can't imagine a time that an adverb would do better than showing the attitude of the dialog through action instead. Saying, "He stormed across the room. 'You're fired!'" is better than saying, "'You're fired!' he screamed" because the first shows, but the last tells. You could argue that a dialog tag takes less space--and it does--but it's a classic show vs. tell situation. Actions in dialog are important because, without them, your characters are just standing around talking like robots. It's about as bereft of inflection as an IM chat. Body language is an important part of communication.

    Bottom line: Dialog tags tell, but explanatory actions show. Dialog tags have their place, but limit them to "said" or "asked." Adverbs in dialog tags are bad.
     
  5. AJSmith
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    AJSmith Senior Member

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    That's an interesting question that I really haven't ever considered. I read books aloud to my students every day... I'm going to have to start paying attention to the different methods used to keep characters clear. :)
     
  6. Kseniya
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    Kseniya New Member

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    Thank you all for your thoughtful replies.

    AJ, please let me know what your experiment yields!

    Islander, That's an interesting approach that I had not considered -- adding more tags for the audio version. I suppose I do exactly that when I read my stuff out loud. However, when I feel forced to do that, I take that as a criticism to my writing. It means I have not explained sufficiently with actions. Also, a kindle reads out loud the written text verbatim.

    Lostinspace, Adverbs aren't my dilemma. I'm 100% with you about "show, don't tell". For dialogue that IS short by its natural inclination, explanations aren't challenging.


    James, What you said about dialogue being highly crafted and not at all like real-life speech is very interesting to me. You hit in another point I've been pondering. I've been working (not very successfully) on making people "sound" different by using different speech patterns, favorite sayings and length of speech. Some people talk way too much. Some barely say enough to deliver information. Some people are quite boring. Others think they are funny and great speakers, but they make other's ears bleed. The dialogue I write IS as you said - crafted and different from real speech. It reads well as a part of my narrative, but I've consideredit a flaw. That's why I am genuinely surprised to hear that dialigue SHOULD NOT match real life talk. I'd be interested to hear more thoughts on this.
     
  7. AveryWhite
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    AveryWhite Senior Member

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    great thread, im learning alot :) this is something that i definatly need to think about more and learn - i often 'tell' more than 'show' and im trying to change.

    this is interesting too and i think rings true.
     
  8. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    Real-life conversations are full of distractions and writing a good story/scene is just the opposite; it needs to be completely free of distractions. A good scene/dialogue should contribute something to the story and it should remain focus on doing that, from start to finish. It is for this reason that good dialogues should avoid greetings which are normally part of real-life conversations. "Good evenings", "good mornings" etc should be avoided unless you want to show that the char is trying hard to be cordial. This is just one example. The bottom line is that you remain focus on what you are trying to convey and remove everything else
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The principle purpose for a dialogue tag is to identify who is speaking. You don't need it for every dialogue passage, and sometimes, depending on the contesxt, you don't neede it at all. If one character is standing on the front step, turning purple with rage, you don't need a dialogue tag for:

    You can also use beats to indicate who is speaking. A beat is an action by the speaker, placed next to a dialogue fragment. Unlike a dialogue tag, a beat is a separate sentence:
     
  10. Kseniya
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    Kseniya New Member

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    Cogito, thank you for the blog references. Very informative.

    Manav, I see your point about minimizing distractions. I had no consciously thought about axing "Good morning"s, but now it occurs to me that this is frequently replaced with "He greeted her and turned back to his breakfast" or "She told me that her morning was already spoiled by a lack of coffee and a rough night."

    Those forms of paraphrased dialogue are terribly convinient. Sometimes they keep the action moving nicely. On the other hand, they are telling, not showing. What do you think? Are these to be embrased, avoided or used in careful doses?
     
  11. James Scarborough
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    James Scarborough Member

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    In a recent Wall Street Journal article, writer John L'Heureux says of writing dialogue: "Young writers often confuse dialogue with conversation, under the assumption that the closer you get to reality, the more convincing you sound. But dialogue is not conversation. Dialogue is a construct; it is artificial; it is much more efficient and believable than real conversation. Just as fiction itself distorts reality in order to achieve a larger truth, so dialogue eliminates all the false starts and irrelevant intrusions of real life in order to reveal character and move the encounter toward a dramatic conclusion." He goes on to illustrate how well-written dialogue works using one of Hemingway's short stories "Hills Like White Elephants" as an example.

    Just so, Mr. L'Huereux! You can read the article in its entirety here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704422204576130681760339992.html
     
  12. Kseniya
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    Kseniya New Member

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    Not to beat a dead horse, but let me ask my original question again. We seem to have discussed everything but.

    Is the golden standard of dialogue-writing targeted at a READER or a LISTENER.

    ("reader" might be the quick answer, but is it still the right answer when you consider that writing is meant to be a means to recording audible information and that e-book readers with text-to-speech have made the audible version popular again?)
     
  13. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Unquestionably the reader (unless you're writing scripts). I'm not sure why you think that "writing is meant to be a means to recording audible information" -- writing and speech are very different things, and most readers will never actually hear what you have written. For audiobooks, a professional actor will have no difficulty in making it clear who is speaking, and for your own readings you can try learning some of the tricks of the professional actor or you can add in a couple of extra "said freds" not in the actual text. That only leaves text-to-speech, which is usually pretty horrid anyway. If you have a particular reason for favouring text-to-speech then you can write specifically with that in mind, but it will impair your writing for all of your other readers, and few writers can afford to do that.
     
  14. Lightman
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    Lightman Active Member

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    I couldn't disagree more. Writers do things all the time that cannot be effectively translated into speech (and I can think of a few novels that wouldn't make sense without visual cues), and the aesthetic principles of good speech are different from those of good writing. For example, if you look at a transcript of a non-prepared speech, you'll often notice that, were it simply a piece of writing, it would come off as amateurish and poorly constructed. Orwell said it: written English and spoken English simply aren't the same thing.

    There are few things worse than good fiction read badly.
     
  15. Reggie
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    Reggie I Like 'Em hot "N Spicy Contributor

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    Dialogue is used to move the story forward and not for just starting a conversation. Characters in fiction normally react to others or situations in dialogue. Some people use dialogue for expository reasons. Some tend to describe the character’s age in the dialogue and birthday. The writer is using dialogue to narrate the character’s life instead of reacting to the description or scene in the story.
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Are you writing books or short stories, or are you writing scripts or perhaps podcasts?

    If books or short stories, you are writing for a reader. If scripts or podcasts, you are writing for a listener.

    And as everyone else has said already, dialogue is not "a means of recording audible information." That would be called a transcript.

    Dialogue is primarily used to reveal character, and is often more effective in doing so than narrative. Good dialogue gives the illusion of natural conversation, but is much more carefully crafted.

    The existence of text to audio technology is irrelevant. The primary target is still readers.

    Podcasts are different, because the intended audience is audio-only from the outset. I wrote a flash piece for a podcast competition last year, but none of the readers caught the point because they were reading it instead of hearing it. They missed the fact that the story was an elaborate pun, also known as a shaggy dog story.
     
  17. JPGriffin
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    JPGriffin Senior Member

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    Not necessarily true (in terms of irrelevance). The mind in itself will usually try and put a voice behind the text, to give the book more life. Or, rather, the minds of people who I usually discuss books with.

    Regardless, writing should be directed to a reader, but not in so much explanation as to overload the books with "he said," "she replied," or else the conversation, along with the dialogue, is basically... "Dumbed down," for lack of a better term. Readers can follow a two person conversation, as in a couple arguing, but if you have something like a conference of five or more people, then the explanation is needed.
     
  18. DBock
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    DBock Member

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    (s)he said is perfectly fine and necessary when writing. most people don't read their books out loud, they read them in their head and it's necessary to know who is speaking.

    There's a book by Ann Lamott called Bird by Bird that has some great tips on dialogue. :)
     
  19. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, but Cog is right about the irrelevance. The reader will have visual cues that a listener would not have (new paragraph & quote marks) to put the right voice to the text.
     
  20. Kseniya
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    Kseniya New Member

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    I agree with most of the logic above. Don't get me wrong - all of my dialogue is written for a reader; always has been. I write novels, not podcasts! Speeches are an even more irrelevant comparison. Next we'll be analyzing dialogue writing for a dissertation... So, yes, a Reader's experience is paramount and that should go without saying.

    What I am questioning is whether ignoring an audible rendition is not a poor standard of editing. I cannot agree that there is no relevant connection. Parents read to children. Blind people or people who are hard of seeing use text-to-speech. It isn't as good as your own mind's voice and your own set of eyes, but it's not at all bad. Three of my friends spend 2+ hours a day in their cars and use their commutes to continue with their reading. My last two test readers read a few chapters of my novel while driving to a vacation -- one drove and listened, while the other read. I know people who do this for each other habitually on long drives. I know couples who read to each other before bedtime. Above all, we hear thoughts in our heads, write them down and readers hear them in their heads again.

    I am becoming more convinced - not less - that a writer is not doing his or her job if an out-loud reader has to insert queues of their own. That's a crutch, and good writing should be able to stand on its own. When a reader inserts queues, they'll do it in the clunkiest way possible. That ought to be a preventable travesty if one were to make this a consideration of editing -- one among many considerations. This does not mean loading the dialogue with bucketfuls of awkward explanations. That's just poor writing and editing. It means adding more action queues or other more elegant plot- and structure-driven means of making one's self understood. Surely that cannot be a bad editing goal?

    Perhaps what I mean to discuss here is "How not to let an out-loud reader ruin your story!" If an out-loud reader is adding queues, then the narrative probably needed them. The author, with some pre-planning, can do this more elegantly and less intrusively.
     
  21. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Well, a recommended approach to proofreading is to read your manuscript aloud. Apart from the advantages in finding mistakes by using a different part of the brain, you will also hear any awkwardness in the audio equivalent of the text.
     
  22. DBock
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    DBock Member

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    I have my computer speak it out loud. It doesn't skip over the parts that aren't working and has helped me significantly. :)
     
  23. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Audiobooks will be done by a professional actor who will definitely not change the text to add cues of their own. Different characters will have different voices, just as in real life. If you need to add extra cues when reading it's not because the writing needs a crutch, it's because the reading needs a crutch, but that's no big deal -- you're supposed to be a writer, not an actor! (Although if you can do both jobs well then it will be a big help at readings.)
     
  24. Kseniya
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    Kseniya New Member

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    If I were talking about audio books, that would be true. I am not. I am talking as much about human beings reading out loud as I am talking about text-to-speech devices. I don't think the reader should have any responsibility for coloring an author's writing with voices or extra tags in order to make it understandable.

    Your last sentence is more what I'm talking about: endeavouring to do both jobs at once. I'm not sure that's an extra. I'm thinking more and more that it's mandatory.

    For example, I had given some stuff to a test reader and begged her not to "read" it in text-to-speech because I thought she would think less highly of the work just because of the delivery method. Then I thought, "Well, great! What happens if and when there's a wider audience? Am I going to write a pre-consumption warning?! As it turns out, she did listen to it in the car because that's the only free time she has, and her feedback was very positive on the language and constructive and helpful regarding the flow of the narrative / story arc. The delivery method did not make a difference. That bit didn't have more than two characters talking at once, though. The next bit does. I'm doing a final editing run before handing it off, hence the concerns.
     

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