Dialog-arrhea II

toiletpaper-all-used-upAs mentioned before in Dialog-arrhea, when dialog is poorly formatted, it can make the story messy. Today I want to discuss another cause of Dialog-arrhea, specifically what do the characters say.

What your characters actually say depends, of course, on the plot, style, and genre of the book. However, the way they say it needs to be consistent with the world around them. A recent patient of mine wanted to avoid he said, she said as much as possible. They went to great lengths to make sure the reader knew which character was speaking. So, instead of the nearly invisible he said, she said, there was a clunky use of the characters names within the dialog. For example:

he said she said“I think we should go over the hill, Gartu.”

“I agree, Zander, but what about the ape-man?”

“I think we can handle him, Gartu. He’s not that big.”

“You know, Zander, perhaps we should lay a trap for him.”

Most people don’t inject the name of the person to whom they are speaking into every sentence. That is the entire purpose behind the he said, she said convention. When used properly, it blends into the background of the story, and the reader doesn’t notice it. Their minds paint an uninterrupted picture, with he said, she said giving the needed information of who is speaking.

If there are only two people in the room, or in the scene, then he said, she said can be reduced, but not eliminated.

Thought Bubble“I think we should go over the hill,” Zander said.

“I agree,” Gartu replied, “but what about the ape-man?”

“I think we can handle him. He’s not that big.”

“You know, perhaps we should lay a trap for him.”

“A trap,” Zander repeated. “What did you have in mind?”

Once we establish who is speaking, it is assumed the conversation goes back and forth, identified by the paragraphing. However, we do need to remind the reader every third line or more who is saying which line. Otherwise the dialog will get messy again, and the reader will get lost.

The other tool we can use to identify the speaker is to imply who is speaking by putting an action and a speech in the same paragraph. If you remember from Dialog-arreha, each character gets their own paragraph whether they are speaking or acting, or both.
run“I think we should go over the hill,” Zander said.

Gartu nodded as he studied the steep climb. “I agree, but what about the ape-man?”

“I think we can handle him. He’s not that big.”

“You know, perhaps we should lay a trap for him.” Gartu grunted with the effort of keeping up with the tall wizard.

Zander stroked his beard thoughtfully. “A trap. What did you have in mind?”

Skipping an identifier or two is fine if there are only two characters, but when a third enters, every paragraph must be identified. Usually this is done with he said, she said, or an action oriented identifier. However, when the characters are developed to a point that each one has its own voice, or unique way of speaking, this can also be an identifier. It does require more of the reader, so it is not recommended except in genres appealing to the more avid readers, such as epic fantasy or science fiction novels more than 400 pages or so in length. I won’t give an example here, because this method should only be used once you can develop it on your own.

As you can see, there are many correct ways to use and format dialog. It is one of the easiest ways to lose your reader when you do it wrong, and one of the best ways to keep the reader engaged when you know how to mix dialog and action.

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