Bridge to Story

The Special Case of Dialogue and Senses

Let's talk about Dialogue Attributes. You can also call them Identifiers. That’s the He said, She said of a line of dialog.

True, we use ‘She said.’ all the time. Sometimes we get bold and write ‘Suddenly she said,’ or ‘she said with a grin.’ Or even ‘She said loudly’ or ‘She smirked’.

But the best way to use these Dialogue Attributes is not telling the reader how it was said, or even who said it.

  • It was said suddenly
  • It was said with a grin
  • It was said loudly
  • It was smirked – we’ll get to this error in another lesson.

Good storytelling shows how it sounded as she said it. It paints a picture of what is behind the words being spoken. Think about the dialog in Topic 6:

“I hate this place,” she growled.

But how did it sound as she said it. (Remember about using stronger verbs.) At the least ask yourself: What does a growl sound like?

Can you go farther?

Action While Speaking

“I hate this place.” Her fingers thump like a jack hammer on the sticky bar.

    or

Description By Metaphor Of Her Voice, Or Of What Was Said

“I hate this place.” Her voice a captive; resigned to the chains.

    or

“I hate this place,” she said. The first bead of a rosary, an old prayer she’ll recite the long night through.

How can a tired (because we expect it) verb like growled compare with setting a scene in any of the other ways?

Example Toggle

Example:

Look at these lines and their attributions:

“Aw mom,” he whined.

“Don’t you aw mom me, Raymond,” she snapped.

    Or

“But why—” Raymond exclaimed.

“Don’t you ‘but why’ me, Raymond,” his mother shot back.

Now, consider a new approach to attributes (using senses). Think about:

How the words act when they are being said: What her voice sounded like.

Her breath came out ragged, worn, “Don’t you ‘but why’ me, Raymond”

What she did as she said that: The noise while she spoke.

She slammed the bag lunch on the counter, “Don’t you ‘but why’ me, Raymond”

What she looked like saying that: The colour of her eyes and the apple.

The rims of her eyelids matched the red of the apple she stuffed into a lunch bag, “Don’t you ‘but why’ me, Raymond”

What she thought while saying that: Her feelings.

I should have let his dad have him, “Don’t you ‘but why’ me, Raymond”

Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle

Lesson Exercise 1:

Here, this writer reconsidered what she had written and then added more senses and showing. Take note of the lessened use of general tags about who said what. Take notes about what replaces those tags.

Before:

Gordo drove east on Hollywood Blvd. rubbing his temple, like a guy who had an appointment with a confession box soon.

Carlos sat in the back seat, “What the f--k did you do to your hair Bernadette?” he asked. “It looks like shit.”

Gordo pulled into Machos Tacos on Vermont and set the brake on. “It looks okay,” He offered, “Hard to get used to, but not ugly.”

Carlos kept on like Gordo hadn’t spoken, “And you got freaks in the next apartment too?”

 “Meg’s a nice person, there’s noting freaky about her.” Bernie responded.

“Cuidado, chica.” Carlos warned, “Did she get to you here?”

Bernie touched her forehead. She stared at the red of the wall.

I’m not going to cry.

She told him. “I like it.” They got out and stood in the parking lot, not moving to the windows to order.

“Turn around.” Carlos was hyper. She did as she was told. “Shit Bernie, what next?” He reached for her nape.

It was too sunny out here.

Gordo said, “C’mon, we gonna order or what?” Then a car pulled into the lot, next to the Impala, thumping with music that cut off into silence and Carlos finally moved away.

Now look how the edits made the scene much more visual and physical for the reader, by trying less tags, no tags, or by editing for more senses and motivations behind what is being said.

Gordo drove east on Hollywood Blvd. rubbing his temple, like a guy who had an appointment with a confession box soon.

“What the f--k did you do to your hair Bernadette?”  Carlos sat in the back seat, leaning over Bernie and kneading her shoulders, lightly. Like a lie. Finally Bernie could pay attention though her skin to all the things he was working to get across. To read what Carlos is saying through her body. And all the pains, all at once returned to all the numb spots. Every one. “It looks like shit.”

Gordo stayed quiet, pulled into Machos Tacos on Vermont and set the brake on with a yank, smacking into the parking chock with a jerk. “It looks okay,” He offered, “Hard to get used to, but not ugly.”

Carlos kept on, like Gordo was a moth. Wings making no noise at all, “And you got freaks in the next apartment too?”

“Meg’s a nice person, there’s noting freaky about her.”

“Cuidado, chica,” He warned, his voice soft, then his hand giving her hair a sharp tug. “Did she get to you here?”

Bernie touched her forehead, smooth and clean under the shorter bangs; she stared at the red of the wall. I’m not going to cry.

She braced herself. ”I like it.” They got out and stood in the parking lot, not moving to the windows to order.

“Turn around.” Carlos was hyper. No harm showing, just too much attitude. She did as she was told. “Shit Bernie, what next?” He reached for her nape and she held still.

It was too sunny out here, Bernie shielding her eyes, no tears crashing down yet.

Gordo said, “C’mon, we gonna order or what?” But he didn’t take a stab at moving and the three of them stayed dead still. Then a car pulled into the lot next to the Impala, thumping with music that cut off into silence. Carlos finally moved away.

Which of these ways of writing is revealing the most of this character to us?

“Don’t you ‘but why’ me, Raymond,” his mother shot back.

or

I should have let his dad have him, “Don’t you ‘but why’ me, Raymond”

Look at your own work. Find a page of dialogue and ask yourself if your attributes are in need of some edits to bring more than who said what into it.