Dialog is a crucial element in romance novels. At least I think it is. I love writing and reading dialog. It moves the story forward (plot), lets us get to know the characters without telling (characterization), tells us what’s important (theme), defines the mood and tone (setting), gives us insight to the author (voice), gets us into the characters’ heads (POV), and exposes problems (conflict). Great dialog can lift a book to another level of enjoyment.
Personally I’m a dialog slut. I write books heavy on the dialog. I always have to go back and add introspection, description, and emotion, because I usually just write down my characters’ conversations for a rough draft (yes, there is more to writing my novels than just dialog, but hey, this blog is about dialog.) So let me start with mechanics. Just kidding, sort of. I won’t speak of punctuation. Comma if there is a speech tag, when to use single quotes, when to use double, how to use a question mark, etc. You can look that up, right? Let me jump right in and talk about the speech tags themselves.
As Elmore Leonard said, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” Who am I to contradict the great Elmore Leonard…but…I would also add use only “ask when tagging a question. Rarely use “whisper,” or “cry,” or “shout,” or anything else. Every “whimper,” “stated,” “retorted,” “answered,” or word other than “said” stops the reader, requires processing, and slows the pace. Any time the reader has to stop to process the word in dialog, it slows your novel. Yes, sometimes you need to use a different word (remember, there are no hard and fast rules for writing--use what works for you), but the word “said” becomes invisible to the reader.
Sometimes you don’t need speech tags at all, especially if only two people are in the conversation. Action tags can indicate who’s speaking. An action tag is simply giving an action to the character who is speaking and attaching the line of dialog to that tag (but not with a comma). For example:
“Now you look terrified.” He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Should I be?”
“No.” He drew his hand down his face.
“And I’m supposed to trust you?” Panic rose in her throat. “I don’t know who you are--“
“Ritter. Tennyson Ritter. I’m your arbiter.”
“The guy who’s supposed to test me?”
“Judge you, observe you, decide whether you pass or fail.”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass. I mean on the test thing.”
He let out an angry breath. “And you’re Kristin Montgomery, who lives at Seven Thousand Beadnell Way, Apartment Two C.”
She hated the Internet. Any creep could get all kinds of information.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know--” He stopped and peered at her, his eyes widening. “Good God, you’re a Rare One.” (THE WISH LIST, May 2010)
Notice that “said” doesn’t even appear in this passage. You might have also noticed that often no tag was necessary at all.
OK, I don’t want to drone on and on, so here are a couple of final points: avoid using the dreaded “-ly” in combination with your speech tag (she wrote vehemently). If you need an adverb to describe the tone, your words aren’t doing their job. And while we are trying to sound realistic in our dialog, we can’t be. We are writing. You’ve probably heard that communication is something like 85% body language (and 67% of all statistics are made up), and all we have are our words on the page. So, yes, strive for realism, but dialog has to convey so much more than just the way we speak, and if you analyze just how much goofy empty stuff we actually say when we speak, you don’t really want to write real dialog. (Yuck. What a horrible sentence.)
Spring is almost here. Yay!
Books I’m reading now:
The Phoenix Unchained by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory
The Golden Season by Connie Brockway