Bringing Readers Into The Conversation

Though readers never get to put in our two cents' worth, you want us to participate in the scene, to be avidly watching and listening, when your characters speak to one another. As the conversational ball bounces back and forth, your first task is to lay out the spoken words on the page so it's clear who is speaking to whom, where they are, and what they're doing. Your second task is to step out of the way and let the characters speak for themselves. Let their words, not yours, convey what's going on. If you overexplain what's going on in the dialogue, your intrusion will be obvious and distracting.

The following techniques will help you accomplish both aims:

• Write "suggestive" dialogue. This doesn't mean to include naughty jokes or double entendres. Rather, the idea is to create speech that sounds genuine but really isn't. If you've ever read a transcript of a tape-recorded conversation, you know that when it's set down on the page, real speech becomes a confusing mishmash and a deadly bore. Real speech is useless as dialogue: It's too full of "uhs," repetitions, digressions, sentence fragments, and aimless prattle. Instead of replicating real speech, try to simulate it so it sounds convincing but is comprehensible and to the point. Remember, every line of dialogue should carry out one of the three functions described above.

Keep your attributions clear and unobtrusive. An attribution is a tag line that identifies the speaker. Here are some thoughts on handling them effectively:

Stick to the word "said." Most of the time you want to avoid using a word too frequently or at points too close together. Said, though, is an invisible word; the reader jumps over the verb to focus on the speaker's name. Asked works the same way for questions.

Sometimes it may be important to give the reader additional information about how the speaker says the words— Joe called, whispered, muttered. (Be careful, though, about hissed. Writers sometimes try to use it to suggest an angry whisper, but a hiss is in fact a prolonged s sound. You can't hiss words that don't contain an s or z.)

Said and asked have other tempting synonyms— exclaimed,proclaimed, uttered, announced, expounded, expostulated, and a host of others. Keep these to a minimum; they call attention to themselves, which distracts from the words the character is speaking.

Avoid adverbs and adjectives. For the same reason, you want to minimize the use of adjectives and adverbs—angrily, sarcastically, softly, smirking, confused—in your attributions. Let the character's own words convey the tone of voice so that readers can hear it correctly in their mental ears.

'You jerk! Get out of here!" Jane yelled angrily. "I never want to see you again."

Jane's wrath is obvious; adding the word angrily only hits us over the head with what we already know.

The exception—though it should occur rarely—is when the character's tone is contrary to what his words would lead you to expect:

"I'm going to break your neck," Miles said in his sweetest voice.

Skip the attribution altogether. Attributions serve two pur-poses—they pinpoint who the speaker is, and they provide information that is not contained in the character's own words. But they also slow the pace of the dialogue scene. Sometimes it's more effective to let the spoken words stand alone, using only occasional attributions to help readers keep track of who's speaking. For an example, look back at the dialogue sections of Christine's story.

Identify the speaker at the first opportunity. Unless the speech is very short, don't leave the attribution to the end. The most natural and easy-reading place to stick he said is at the first pause or breathing point in the speech. Usually this means after the first sentence or long phrase. That way the reader doesn't discover upon reaching the end of the paragraph that the person speaking is not who she thought it was.

Use only one attribution or tagperparagraph. Usually this is enough. If you've included he said, you don't need to add he continued later on. If the paragraph includes an action or gesture on the part of the speaker, that's a sufficient identifying tag, so you might not even need he said.

• Use stage business effectively. The term stage business, borrowed from the theater, describes the actions a character makes while speaking—sipping coffee, twirling a wineglass by the stem, breaking a blossom off the bouquet and sniffing it, petting the dog, lighting a cigar, or whatever. Stage business has several functions in a dialogue scene. You can use stage business to:

Substitute for the attribution. You can signal who the speaker is without using said or one of its cousins.

Help set the scene. Stage business has the advantage of being more visual than a simple attribution. You can bring in sensory details to increase the you-are-there quality for the reader.

Break up long speeches or conversations. Yes, dialogue is action, but talking-head scenes—long stretches of dialogue during which nothing else happens—become static pretty quickly. Stage business makes such scenes livelier.

Signal a shift in the speaker's thought or tone. Placed in the middle of a speech, a line of stage business gives the speaker a graceful way to change the subject.

Characterize the speaker. When choosing stage business, think of activities that would be natural to the individual character, the time, and the place. Greg smokes too much; Lucy doodles dollar signs on a paper napkin.

Notice how stage business works in this exchange between a real estate agent and a couple who show up at a Sunday open house:

The woman meandered about the living room, running fingers over the furniture, picking up knickknacks, putting them down. Her doing that made me jittery; it wasn't the furniture that was for sale.

"Feel free to look around." I forced myself to sound cheerful. "It's a lovely house, very well priced for the neighborhood. Did you see our ad in the paper?"

"We saw the sign out front." The woman kept shifting from foot to foot in an awkward little jig, until I wanted to grab her and make her stand still. "We've kind of had our eyes on this house, haven't we, Hal?"

The man was still leaning against the archway in the foyer, hands hidden in the pocket of his wrinkled gray overcoat. "Furniture's all here," he said. His wife—or girlfriend?—had certainly established that.

"The van is coming this week for the Dunbars' things," I explained. "You could move in quite soon if you decide to buy."

"Buy what? Oh, you thought—"The woman picked up a silver candlestick from the mantel and rubbed a ragged fingernail along its rim. "See, we're old friends of Ray Dunbar's."

"Please put that down." I tried for tact. "This afternoon, the house is my responsibility. It's my fault if anything goes wrong."

"Huh? Oh, sure." She replaced the candlestick and began fiddling with a cigarette box. "It's strange, though—Ray never said anything about moving, did he, Hal?"

Hal hadn't budged from the archway. "C'mon. We better look around."

The woman bounced excitedly. 'Yeah, let's go."

Body language—a person's gestures and movements—can be a useful part of stage business. But don't rely too much on having your characters lean forward, lean back, turn, shrug, smile, nod, or shake their heads. Too many motions like these can make the character come across as restless or jumpy. Moreover, they're hard to individualize: A shrug of the shoulders is a shrug whether Lucy's doing it or Greg. More purposeful actions add greater interest and vividness to dialogue scenes.

Use a period rather than a comma when you introduce a speech with an action. In other words: Greg smiled. "Are you sure?" rather than Greg smiled, "Are you sure?" It's possible to smile while you're speaking, but not to smile out loud.

• Give each person's speech its own paragraph. In dialogue, readers expect a new paragraph to signal a change of speaker. You can avoid confusion by not putting lines from two people in the same paragraph. Similarly, hold your characters to one paragraph per speech and don't let them ramble on. If someone insists on being long-winded, you have three options:

Impose some discipline on him. In other words, shorten the speech.

Give him some stage business. Let him perform it at the start of the second paragraph, and include his name to clarify that he is still the one speaking.

Have the listener react at various points. She could ask a question, make a comment, prod for more information, express encouragement or skepticism, let out an expletive-whatever might lead the speaker to his next point. She need not respond out loud. An action, a gesture, or a silent thought might do as well, or even better if you want to keep the listener's reaction a secret from the speaker. Having the listener be responsive makes the exchange more of a dialogue and less of a monologue.

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