Category Archives: dialogue

He Said, She Said: Dialogue Tags

Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition, lists fifty-nine synonyms for “say.” You can declare, assert, and reply; announce, communicate, and utter. So many lovely words to choose from in order to say the same thing!

Do this right now: Take a Sharpie and mark out every single one of these synonyms. Because “say” and its forms are quite sufficient for most dialogue.

Here, for example, is a passage of dialogue from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

”Ho Dink,” Ender said. “Sit.”

”You gold-plated fart,” said Dink cheerfully. “We’re all trying to decide whether your scores up there are a miracle or a mistake.”

”A habit,” said Ender.

”One victory is not a habit,” Dink said.

Orson Scott Card's Ender's GameThe passage goes on, using “said” each time the speaker is quoted. Why didn’t Card mix it up with some declarations, assertions, and communications? Because “say” is a lot like an, and, a, and the. Readers don’t notice the word when it’s used, so it doesn’t get in the way of the flow of the story. In fact, in journalism classes, students are taught to stick to “said” for just this reason.

Let’s see the same passage with a few synonyms replacing “said.”

”Ho Dink,” Ender greeted him. “Sit.”

”You gold-plated fart,” responded Dink cheerfully. “We’re all trying to decide whether your scores up there are a miracle or a mistake.”

”A habit,” replied Ender.

”One victory is not a habit,” Dink rebutted him.

Do you notice those dialogue tags? I certainly do; I trip over them every time.

Try this experiment: take any well-written, contemporary novel, and check out a passage of dialogue. I’m willing to bet you’ll see the dialogue tag “said” used most of the time. And if it’s good enough for those writers, it’ll probably do just fine for you, too.

Ain’t Got No Time for Good Grammar–When It’s Okay to Use Poor Grammar

Believe it or not, there are times in your writing when you should use poor grammar.

Yes, really!

South Park Hillbilly BrigadeIn what situations? Usually, you might use poor grammar in order to better convey a character. For example, let’s say your character is a backwards, uneducated slob named Rollo. Rollo is visiting an alien planet for the first time—perhaps a cosmopolitan pleasure planet. He’s shocked and frightened by the forwardness of the aliens on this planet, and he doesn’t know what to make of them. Which bit of dialogue would better convey Rollo’s character?

Then the tall, blue-skinned alien set down a frosty glass of Uxorian ale. “Why don’t you try this?” the alien said to Rollo. “It might help you see things on our planet differently.”

”Did you drug that drink?” Rollo asked, narrowing his eyes. “I won’t understand you savages simply because I had a glass of ale. Nothing about this planet makes sense to me—I doubt a drink will change that.”

Or:

Then the tall, blue-skinned alien set down a frosty glass of Uxorian ale. “Why don’t you try this?” the alien said to Rollo. “It might help you see things on our planet differently.”

”You slip some kinda roofie in that?” Rollo asked, narrowing his eyes. “I ain’t gonna understand you savages just ‘cause I had one of your fancy drinks. Ain’t nothing about this planet makes sense to me, and no drink is gonna change that.”

In the first example, in which I put good grammar in Rollo’s mouth, he sounds educated, urbane. Perhaps still too conservative, but certainly not the backwards slob we were hoping to convey.

In the second example, in which I put poor grammar in Rollo’s mouth, he sounds utterly sheltered, more suspicious of the Uxorians, more prone to paranoia, even more close-minded.

In your writing, do not strive for good grammar over the sake of effect. If a character is uneducated, then let his grammar reflect that. This does not mean to make him sound stupid–indeed, a lack of education and intelligence aren’t really correlated. But on the other hand, he should not sound as if he went to Oxford. Likewise, if a character is an Oxford graduate who uses pretentiously good grammar, with an inappropriately vast vocabulary, then let her sound ridiculous. Don’t tie yourself so tightly to good grammar that your characters can never have a personality of their own-—as with children, you must allow them to fly the nest.

How to Address a Mad Scientist: Or, Titles in Dialogue

Say you have a character who’s a hardened detective, Detective Barebones. He must bring in Mr. and Mrs. Florestan, the parents of a missing teenager, to inform them that no leads exist in the case. Barebones brings them into his cluttered office and asks them to sit down. How would Barebones invite the Florestans to sit?

You would write:

Detective Barebones led the kid’s parents – a stiff-lipped older man with greying hair and his little, mousy broad of a wife – into his office. With one arm, he swept aside a stack of manila folders from his old desk chair, and with his other arm, he gestured to the couple to sit on the battered black and orange couch across from the desk.

“Sit down, Mister and Missus Florestan,” Barebones began.

Mister and Missus? Why write out “Mr” and “Mrs”? Well, because nobody actually says the letters M-R or M-R-S when he or she addresses another person. We sound the titles out: thus, “Mr” becomes “Mister”, and “Mrs” becomes “Missus.”

You might think that because this is a written dialogue, you wouldn’t have to write the titles out. However, your goal in writing dialogue is to write what people actually say, the way they say it. You would no more write “Mr” or “Mrs”, which no one says, than you would have Barebones address Florestan as “sirrah” (unless, of course, everyone in your story speaks Elizabethan English).

As another example, suppose you have a mad scientist with a degree from King’s College in your story. The scientist, Dr. Audric, is about to turn on the electricity that will bring his automaton, Clarabelle, to life. But his young assistant, who has scrofula, is in love with him and is jealous of Clarabelle. The assistant, Egberta, she wants to stop him. How would she address her erstwhile lover?

“Please, Doctor Audric!” Egberta cried, rushing for the switch. “How could you treat a woman so callously as to cast her aside just because of a little scrofula?”

Notice that I wrote out Doctor. Again, I did so because no one says the letters D-R when he or she addresses a mad scientist. Just as with the Florestans, you’d always address Audric the correct way – as Doctor Audric. Otherwise, you risk getting turned into a lab experiment.