Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Variety is the Spice of Dialogue

Recently I was looking at some student work and while the dialogue seemed realistic, it also appeared clunky. Then I realised: it was the spacing of the attributions. They invariably came at the end so it went something like this...

"Blah blah blah. Blah blah. Blah blah blah," A said.
"Blah blah. Blah. Blah blah," B said.
"Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah," A said.
"Blah. Blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah," B said.
"Blah," A said.
"Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah," B said.

And here it is with the attributions moved around:

"Blah blah blah,' A said. 'Blah blah. Blah blah blah."
"Blah blah. Blah," B said. "Blah blah."
"Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah," A said.
"Blah," B said. "Blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah."
B said, "Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah."

Just moving the attributions around make it look more attractive to read. (It's blah blah to help you see more clearly. Nothing to do with lacking inspiration for sample dialogue.) I've also omitted one of the attributions, because it should be clear who is talking on line 5.

I could have played around with action:

"Blah blah blah.' A sipped the hot tea. 'Blah blah. Blah blah blah."
"Blah blah. Blah." B spilt sugar all over the table. "Blah blah."
"Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah." A carefully wiped the sugar grains into a napkin.
"Blah." B flung the sugar spoon into the saucer. "Blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah."
B began to cry. "Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah."

Not an attribution in sight, but the actions make it clear who is doing the speaking. Whatever method you use, remember to vary the format: actions, plus attributions, plus changing speech rhythms make for interesting dialogue, even when what's being said is, frankly, a bit blah.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Jim Murdoch said...

Not a great fan of the ‘he-said-she-saids’ I have to say and I usually let the dialogue stand on its own as much as possible (with just the odd reminder if the thing is getting too long of who’s actually talking) or – a trick I learned from Jeanette Winterson (although I think she learned it from Joyce) – format conversations as if you were writing a play. I don’t do it all the time but it makes a refreshing change for, say, a phone call which is how I employ it in my latest novel.

Sarah Duncan said...

The only 'right' answer is that the reader should be able to follow who is speaking each time without a struggle. Sometimes that might mean no attributions or action, othertimes there might be a need for loads. I'm not a fan of stretches of dialogue which are like a play in format, but hey - horses for courses!