Welcome to another edition of The Editor’s Corner! I am your host, editor and writer Anne Hogue-Boucher.
Last week, I wrote about adverb usage, and as a side note, feel free to use them often in your first draft. I do. I use them as placeholders when I’m trying to get out an idea and then in my second go-around, I’ll take them out and replace them with stronger writing. I just use them as reminders of the mood I wanted to set for the passage.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s move onto tip number two.
Today’s tip is about dialogue attribution, and for many of you, this will fly in the face of what your English teacher taught you.
I will tell you now that your publisher/editor and English teacher often work at cross-purposes. Your English teacher is trying to help you expand your vocabulary and improve your ability to be more flexible with it. Your editor and publisher are trying to help you not look like a neophyte writer.
So don’t be upset if you find this contradicts what you were taught. Just remember that this is for a different arena.
Never use anything but “said” and “asked” in your dialogue attribution. Everything else is a surefire way to mark you as an inexperienced writer.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
“There’s a monkey in that tree,” John hollered.
“Shoot it!” Matt screamed.
“Why? It’s not doing anything,” John growled.
“It’s stealing my bananas!” Matt insisted.
Why is this wrong and why does it sound like a greenhorn wrote it? A couple of reasons. This is not really showing the reader what’s going on, and it becomes a tad redundant. We want to show the reader what’s happening to draw them into the scene rather than tell them what’s going on in it. Showing brings the reader in and gets them involved. Telling makes them passive, and not invested.
It’s also redundant. Everyone is hollering, screaming, growling, and insisting. Do you get it now, reader? Are you sure everyone is in an uproar? Here the reader might roll their eyes. They get it. Stop smashing it in their faces.
So let’s clean it up and see what happens:
“There’s a monkey in that tree,” John’s voice echoed off the rocks that created a barrier from the shore.
“Shoot it!” Matt waved his hands at John. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead.
“Why? It’s not doing anything.”
“It’s stealing my bananas!” Matt ran his hands into his hair and pulled, bending over as he fell to the ground.
If you have an exclamation point (use those sparingly, by the way), then ‘screamed’ and ‘hollered’ aren’t necessary. You also don’t always need to attribute your dialogue if it’s clear who’s doing the talking, so even ‘said’ and ‘asked’ become words you can use less.
Rather than reusing ‘said’ and ‘asked’ repeatedly, show the scene to your reader. Make your reader hear John’s voice echoing off the rocks. Make your reader hear Matt’s insistence and panic/outrage.
“Do you understand now?” I asked the reader of this blog, who may or may not be scowling at these words. “It’s not that your attribution is wrong, just that it’s less than professional. So give it another go, and see how much better you can make it.”
That’s it for this installment. Questions? Send me a message on Facebook.