Dialogue – Keep it Simple

A week ago a friend asked me if I could read a friend’s novel and give my opinion on it. Now this isn’t something I’m comfortable doing, so I recommended the author joined a writing group. The friend said that the author was too timid to do this and would I just have a look at the first three chapters, as a favour; with a bottle of wine thrown in for my time. So reluctantly I agreed.

It’s obvious at the outset that the author is a fledgling writer and the reason for this blog entry is not to publicly critique their work, but to mention something that I feel many new writers fall victim to; the over-use of synonyms in dialogue.

I think it’s better to let the dialogue flow naturally tagging the text with simply ‘said’ and the occasional ‘replied’. I think many people new to the art of writing feel that dressing up the dialogue displays a better command of language, when in reality it makes the characters’ conversations stilted.

I cannot recall where I read an article about how the brain processes regularly used words, but I do remember reading a piece that explained that the reader scans the word ‘said’ and the brain processes it quickly without ever allowing it to interfere with the dialogue.

An example I came across recently read: “How dare you,” issued Portia angrily. Why would the writer want to use the phrase issued – angrily? We know by the three words spoken that Portia is angry with what another character has said or done, but tagging it in this way diminishes that anger. If it had been written, “How dare you,” said Portia, the dialogue is more dramatic by its shortness in text.

Another example of this read: “It’s not fair,” Martin blustered huffily. In the text Martin is a teenager, and we all know that teens can be awkward and moody, therefore ‘huffily’ is redundant, and the extra word does nothing but slow down the story. As for the term ‘blustered’ does it add anything to the dialogue? Not in my opinion as it causes me to stop reading and wonder why the author chose the word, which doesn’t seem to fit a teenager, being better suited to describe an elderly and cantankerous gentleman; but never as a dialogue tag.

If I cast my mind back to when I was in primary education, we were often encouraged by our teacher to think up new ways of explaining the dialogue in our stories. words like giggled, roared, exclaimed and pleaded were acceptable. But these are exercises in increasing a child’s vocabulary and as a professional writer should be used only in rare and pertinent situations.

Another example read, “I believe that you’re nothing but a liar,” barked Peter. The word ‘barked’ is added to this piece of dialogue by the author to hopefully give the speech more gravitas. However it only lends an awkwardness to the speech. The dialogue is a personal statement made by Peter to another character and is strong enough on its own to stand up without a leaf through a thesaurus for a decorative tag. Keep the barking for the dogs in your stories.

I do believe however that we need to keep what we write interesting and the occasional descriptive tag can benefit the character and drive the dialogue along. The best synonyms for this job tend to be short ones as they don’t slow down the pace. For example, if we return to Portia from earlier, we could write, “How dare you,” hissed Portia. It gives us a little more about the character to take in but that said adds nothing to the actual dialogue, so as I have said before, should only be used on rare occasions.

Remember, keep it simple and your dialogue becomes slicker and more natural.

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