By Nathan Dodge
(A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in the eZine Reflection’s Edge)
What makes a writer effective in writing fictional dialogue? Why is it that some authors can make a conversation come alive while others can’t seem to avoid a stilted, unrealistic cast to every exchange of characters? There’s no magical formula to Pulitzer-winning dialogue, but I think that there are some basic stylistic rules that every writer should know and follow.
The concept of “dialogue style” and its impact on the story in fiction was brought home to me when I first read one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, Plot It Yourself. The story involves Wolfe in the search for a killer who also happens to be an author. Wolfe remarks at one point to Archie, his ever-present aide-de-camp, that a specific author’s handling of dialogue is as unique to that author as a fingerprint:
“You know, of course, that nearly every writer of dialogue has his pet substitute, or substitutes, for ‘say.’ Wanting a variation for ‘he said’ or ‘she said,’ they have him declare, state, blurt, spout, cry, pronounce, avow, murmur, mutter, snap—there are dozens of them; and they tend to repeat the same one.”
Wolfe goes on to say that he has spotted a plagiarizer (and murderer) because the author uses the same word for “said” over and over again. In this case, the writer’s characters don’t “say” things very often, but they frequently “aver” them. Stout’s point that authors have habits in creating dialogue was an eye-opening statement, and it led me, over the intervening years, to develop an eye for dialogue style. It was only a short hop from there to the next logical question: What is it about an author’s style in dialogue that makes it effective in advancing the story line of the fictional work?
A good question at this point is, “What do you mean by dialogue style?” The answer is as usual complicated, but a somewhat simplified answer might be that the author’s style in composing conversations consists of the speaking or attribution verbs (such as “said”) that he uses; the frequency with which each attribution verb is used; how (or if) the author modifies his verbs with adverbs, and if so, how often; and how each conversation is played out against the background of the overall story line.
The concomitant question is, “How does an author achieve an effective dialogue style?” Again, there is no simple answer, but there are a few useful principles that can help the writer to construct effective dialogue in written fiction. They are:
“Said” is a useful verb and should be used frequently (if not constantly) to the exclusion of the more exotic attribution verbs. If the writer must use a verb other than “say,” often an action verb is an excellent substitute.
The author should avoid adverbial modifiers at almost all cost.
Where possible, an author should simply let the conversation unfold without attribution (or speaker designation) of any sort. This can have great impact on the story line.
These three principles can be summarized into one basic “commandment of dialogue:”
Keep dialogue straightforward, with a minimum use of speaking or attribution verbs and as few modifiers as possible. When a substitute for “said” is used, it must be appropriate to the conversation and mesh well with the mood of the exchange.
In terms of point one, let us return to Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels as an example. Stout is an excellent example of an author who is not big at all on “say” replacement verbs. He will usually just set up a conversation and simply let those involved have their turns with very few supporting verbs to denote the speaker. Identification of a person in a conversation is often accomplished via an action rather than a speaking verb—by having the speaker look or nod or smile. Some brief examples:
“That,” Hansen said, “is an unmistakable threat.”
[Archie replying] “Is it?” I grinned at him. “That’s bad. I thought I was just answering a question. I withdraw it.”
“This is drivel,” Hansen said curtly. “Pure speculation. If you have a fact, what is it?”
“Out there, Mr. Hansen.” Wolfe aimed a thumb over his shoulder at the door.
“Do you believe that one of the contestants killed [the victim]?”
Wolfe shook his head. “I’ve told you, I’m not working on a murder…”
When assigning a speaking verb to Wolfe other than “said,” Stout will normally have him “grunt” or “mutter” or “growl”—thereby proving his premise that all authors, even Stout himself, have favorites:
In a minute Wolfe growled in my ear, “Well?”
Wolfe grunted… “If your father wants to hire me, I might consider it…”
Robert B. Parker, writer of the Spenser detective novels (which spawned the Spenser for Hire TV series) is a master of economical dialogue—maybe terse dialogue is a better description—and is a heavy user of “said.” Further, his character’s speech is totally undecorated with adverbial embellishments. That is, his characters do not say things “loudly” or “quietly” or “indignantly” or “furtively” or “foolishly,” or any “-ly” way for that matter. They just say them, period.
I must confess to a genuine admiration for this kind of dialogue development—the meat is in the words spoken, not in some sort of synthetic emotion that the author might try to inject via either some substitute for “say” or by the modifying terms. A sample:
“Do you do divorce work?” the woman said.
“I do,” I said.
“Are you any good?”
“I am,” I said.
“I don’t want likelihood,” she said. “Or guesswork. I need evidence that will stand up in court.”
“That’s not up to me,” I said. “That’s up to the evidence.”
She sat quietly in my client chair and thought about that.
“You’re telling me you won’t manufacture it,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“You won’t have to,” she said. “The sonovabitch can’t keep his dick in his pants for a full day.”
“Must make dining out awkward,” I said.
You get the point. If the dialogue is good enough, it speaks for itself, and adverbs are redundant. The exchange shown is a good example of both Parker’s inventiveness and his taut dialogue.
Point two, that authors should avoid unnecessary adverbs, is aptly illustrated by a selection from one of Stephen King’s works, On Writing, a non-fiction book which was published in 2000. This aptly-titled work is an outstanding treatise on fiction writing, on a par with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (and as a matter of fact, my personal favorite). On Writing is an odd concoction, part autobiography, part writer’s cookbook, all-engrossing in its revelations of the author’s experiences and his ideas about writing fiction. In it, King makes an eloquent argument for point 2, above:
I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions…and not even then, if you can avoid it.
He goes on to show how three sentences of dialogue can be weakened if not trivialized by the addition of adverbs that ostensibly reinforce the emotion being transmitted. Thus,
“Put it down,” she shouted.
“Give it back,” he pleaded, “It’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.
are transformed into:
“Put it down,” she shouted menacingly.
“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “It’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.
It doesn’t take a bestselling author—or simply an avid reader—to see that the latter three sentences are far weaker than the first three. In fact, as King goes on to comment, they are not just weaker; they are right out of the old “pulp fiction” tradition, where writers frequently overused verbal clichés, loading sentences with redundant modifiers to “maximize” the emotional content.
King finishes by noting that not only must the writer avoid the clichéd adverb in dialogue, but he must also avoid putting the verb itself “on steroids.” That is, don’t substitute for “said” some other speaking verb that is in itself a walking cliché or a pulp fiction refugee:
“Put down the gun, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.
“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.
“You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.
I join Mr. King in his final supplication on the subject to the novice writer:
Don’t do these things. Please oh please.
Although one of the best forms of dialogue attribution is simply the use of “said” (“he said,” “she said”), another effective dialogue attribution may be none at all. Simply set up the scene and let the characters exchange thoughts without any supporting comment by the author. The real force in the scene then becomes the dialogue, and if the author is on her/his game, this unmodified, unembroidered conversation can drive the story much more forcefully than when the author adds a plethora of attribution fillers as though trying to remind us “who’s on first.”
An author who is quite facile with dialogue is Janet Evanovich, who writes the Stephanie Plum detective novels (and is, I will admit, an acquired taste). Evanovich’s stories tend to be funny on the sophomoric side, as Plum is a complete klutz, but the dialogue has a sort of charm all its own. As an example (Plum speaking first, with a mysterious, unnamed adversary):
“Some moron thought it would be cute to put spiders in my car.”
“Do you like spiders?”
“They’re okay. Not so much fun as bunnies, for instance.”
“I understand you hit a parked car.”
“One of the spiders took me by surprise.”
“The element of surprise is important in battle.”
“This isn’t a battle. I’m trying to put an old woman’s mind at ease by finding a little girl.”
“You must think I’m stupid. You’re a bounty hunter. A mercenary. You know perfectly well what this is about. You’re in this for the money. You know what the stakes are. And you know what I’m trying to recover. What you don’t know is who you’re dealing with. I’m toying with you now, but at some point the game will get boring for me. If you haven’t come over to my side by the time I get bored with the game, I’ll come after you with a vengeance, and I’ll rip the heart out of your body while it’s still beating.”
No modifiers, no emotion verbs needed. You know exactly what Plum is up against and how tough her criminal adversary really is.
Let me hasten to add that “say” substitutes should not necessarily be banned from the fiction writer’s lexicon. They should, however, be used sparingly and adroitly, to leaven dialogue with body or to slightly change the tone of an exchange as it progresses.
This brings us to the “super-principle,” repeated below:
Keep dialogue straightforward, with a minimum use of speaking or attribution verbs and as few modifiers as possible. When a substitute for “said” is used, it should be appropriate to the conversation and mesh well with the mood of the exchange.
As an illustration of this guideline (or more properly, of the use of all three of the principles enumerated) let’s turn to that old master of fantasy, J. R. R Tolkien, whose dialogue has always appealed strongly to me. In the following passage, an exchange between Bilbo Baggins, some Elves, and Bilbo’s nephew Frodo, Bilbo has been reading a poem he has composed to a group of Elves at Elrond’s home (the so-called “Last Lonely House” that the reader also visits in Tolkien’s first novel, The Hobbit):
“Now we had better have it again,” said an Elf.
Bilbo got up and bowed. “I am flattered, Lindir,” he said. “But if would be too tiring for me to repeat it all.”
“Not too tiring for you,” the Elves answered laughing. “You know that you are never tired of reciting your own verses. But we really cannot answer your question at one hearing!”
“What!” cried Bilbo. “You can’t tell which parts were mine and which were the Dúnadan’s?”
“It is not easy for us to tell the difference between two mortals,” said the Elf.
“Nonsense, Lindir,” snorted Bilbo. “If you can’t distinguish between a Man and a Hobbit, your judgment is poorer than I imagined. They’re as different as peas and apples.”
“Maybe. To sheep, other sheep no doubt appear different,” laughed Lindir. “Or to shepherds. But mortals have not been our study. We have other business.”
“I won’t argue with you,” said Bilbo. “I am sleepy after so much music and singing. I’ll leave it to you to guess, if you want to.”
He got up and came towards Frodo. “Well, that’s over,” he said in a low voice. “It went off better than I expected. I don’t often get asked for a second hearing. What did you think of it?”
“I am not going to try and guess,” said Frodo smiling.
“You needn’t,” said Bilbo. “As a matter of fact, it was all mine…”
Here, the Old Master himself gives a seminar in dialogue construction. The plurality speaking verb is “said,” with just a sprinkling of substitutes (answered, cried, snorted, laughed) and modifiers (laughing, smiling) to add interest or highlight a point. The tone of gentle humor, with just a dash of superiority on the part of the immortal Elves, is clearly transmitted in the interchange, and Frodo’s affection for his uncle is also on display. (And by the way, if you think there might be a comma or two left out of that last sample, I might tend to agree with you, but then again, who are we to argue with The Master?)
In addition to supporting the principles we have discussed, this last example amplifies my overall contention: In fictional dialogue, less is generally more, and the successful author should let the spoken word speak for itself. As much as possible—and within the constraints of a given story line—a writer should put the spoken word on display with minimal attribution and let the words themselves create the scene, the emotion, and the movement of the story.
Let’s summarize these principles one more time to emphasize the steps to sound dialogue in fiction. First, there is really no substitute for the good old-fashioned verb “said.” It plainly indicates dialogue, it rarely requires a substitute, and within the text, it is truly invisible. If a verb does replace “said,” it is often effective to use an action verb that indicates the speaker, e.g.: Simpson nodded, “I understand.”
Second, stay away from the unnecessary modifier. It is far better to say, “Her eyes widened. ‘I saw a face at the window!’” than to say, “‘I saw a face at the window!’ she shouted excitedly.”
Third, avoid attribution verbs altogether unless the conversation becomes unclear without them. You may need one or two to set up the dialogue, but thereafter let it proceed on its own. Thus, borrowing a situation from Parker:
Smith sat back in his chair. “Coffee?” he asked.
Mary adjusted her dress nervously. “No, thank you.”
“What can I do for you?”
“Well… Maybe nothing. What do you charge for a consultation?”
“A hundred dollars an hour. But the first half hour is free—I have to determine whether I want to take your case.”
“Hmph. Business must be pretty good if you’re that picky about clients.”
“It’s okay. But it would never be bad enough that I would take a case without understanding exactly what my client would need from me first.”
Only one attribution verb used, plus an action verb that indicates that our fictional detective’s client is in trouble. Then the dialogue sails on with no support from the author other than the spoken word.
“He said; she said.” Keep it simple, and when constructing a speaking passage, just let the dialogue be the star!
After receiving his Ph. D. in electrical engineering sometime near the end of the dark ages, Nathan Dodge initially joined General Dynamics in Fort Worth, TX. He later moved to Texas Instruments in Dallas. Subsequently, he joined the faculty at The University of Texas at Dallas, spending sixteen years as a full-time teacher. He retired two years ago to devote more time to writing, although he still teaches part-time at UTD.
Nathan received several teaching awards while at UTD and was also nominated twice for University of Texas System teaching awards given by the Board of Regents, but, alas, did not win either time.
Nathan’s hobbies include voracious reading, watching movies with wife Faye Lynn, singing in his church choir, playing with Freckles, their collie/sheltie mix (who is so hyper that Nathan refers to him as the “kwazy wabbit”), and occasionally sleeping late.
 Plot it Yourself, Rex Stout, Bantam edition, January, 1986, p. 22 (original publication date October, 1959 [Viking Press]).
 Before Midnight, Rex Stout, Bantam Books, Eleventh Edition, p. 86.
 Ibid, p. 141.
 Ibid, p. 64.
 Ibid, p.7.
 Gambit, Rex Stout, Bantam Books, Eleventh Edition, p. 86.
 Bad Business, Robert B. Parker, 2004, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, p.1.
 On Writing, Stephen King, Scribner, 2000, p. 125.
 Ibid, pp. 125-126
 Ibid, p. 126.
 Ibid, p. 127
 Hard Eight, Janet Evanovich, St. Martin’s, 2002, p. 144.
 The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1965, p. 249.
Thanks, Nathan! It’s nice to have that summed up properly. The use of examples and the lack of menacing absolutes makes this a rare and valuable insight on dialog tags.
Enjoyed this useful commentary