Note: My approach to discussing dialog, is to write dialog by ‘conversing’ with my imaginary friend, Piper. (I know, I’m strange, and tend to have imaginary friends with me. Good thing I’m a writer, huh?) However, I’ll start the whole article by giving you a glimpse of Sooner or Later by Vickie McDonough:
“How old are you?”
Mason pushed against a supply crate with his foot and shifted to a better position. “I’m twenty-six. How about you?”
Twenty-one? Mason blinked against the darkness. He’d thought for sure she wasn’t a day over seventeen.
“Have you—I mean—you’re not—married, are you?” Rebekah stiffened in his arms.
Piper leans forward to prop her arms on my desk from her seat opposite me. “Ooh, that Vickie McDonough writes so well. So? Why did you stop there?”
I glance at Piper, who scowls as she taps her foot. This makes me smile because I know that was mean of me to stop right in the middle of a scene like that. But I act nonchalant. “Because I wanted to ask if you noticed that Vickie didn’t have to use tag lines?”
“Ah, what’s a tag line?” Piper asks sheepishly.
“A tag line is a couple of words or a phrase that tells you who is speaking. The simplest and least obtrusive tag lines are ‘he said’ and ‘she said,’ or minor variations like ‘she replied’ or ‘he asked,’ as in this conversation between us,” I reply. “Let me give you another example off the top of my head.”
“Hello,” he said, “my name’s Horace. What’s yours?” he asked.
“Hi,” she replied, turning in her chair to look at him. “I’m Gail Adams.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Horace said. “I’ve been wondering who you were for an hour.”
Piper grimaces and shakes her head at me. “Kinda blah. Can’t you put some zing into it?”
“Sure,” I respond. “But it’s best to keep things simple. Using adjectives, adverbs and fancy verbs to describe tone of voice or show what’s going on just gets in the way of the action and characterization. This is what can happen—”
“Hello,” he croaked nervously. “My name is Horace. What’s yours?” he asked with as much aplomb as he could muster.
“Hi,” she squeaked uncertainly, turning in her chair to look at him. “I’m Gail Adams,” she said blushingly.
“Pleased to meet you,” Horace declared. “I’ve been wondering who you were for an hour,” he offered with a quaver in his voice.
“Ugh, that was awful, Gloria.” Piper grabs her throat and pretends to gag. “Can’t we go back to Vickie’s story?”
Piper had an attention span the size of a flea. “Not until I at least make my point. Now, what was wrong with that passage?”
“The dialog was amateurish—sounding stilted and forced. Why is that, I wonder?”
“It’s called author intrusion. The wish of an author is to create the illusion of reality, to make the reader forget he or she is reading a story rather than living it. Therefore, an author tries to hide herself to make the story seem as natural as possible. Adjectives and other sorts of descriptions tend to remind the reader that somebody’s controlling his or her interest.”
“But can’t that scene be livened up another way,” Piper asks, “and still keep the action and characterization going?”
“Absolutely. You can even start in medias res.”
“OK, showoff, what are you blathering about now?” The bunched brows are back.
“Hey, once in a while I can use writers’ jargon. After all, I am an author.”
“You are? Could’ve fooled me,” she retorts with a flattening of her lips.
“I’m doing this as illustration.”
“Uh-huh.” Arms crossed, she gives me a narrow-eyed appraisal.
I return Piper’s look with a frown of my own. Really. “I mean, can’t you give me a little credit?”
“Sorry,” she replies although her smirk tells me she is anything but.
“Do you want me to tell you what in medias res means, or not?”
“If you must.” Piper sighs and slumps against the back of her chair.
“It means ‘in the middle of things.’ And that’s where you’re supposed to start a narrative so as to get the action going and the reader involved as quickly as possible.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re about as quick as a sloth. Starting in the middle of a scene? I mean, would anyone know what was happening?”
“You be the judge. Here’s another version of the same scene, but starting in the middle of it. Just listen to this . . .”
“Gail Adams,” she replied. “And yours?”
“Horace. I’ve been watching you for about an hour, and I finally couldn’t help approaching you. Forgive me.” Hands trembling, he set his coffee cup on the table before he dropped it and made an even bigger fool of himself. She was beautiful.
“Much better, Gloria!” Piper beamed at me. “See? I knew you were an author, and a rather decent one, at that.”
“Thank you,” I reply, abashed.