January 17, 2013

Three Ways To Do Dialogue Attributes Wrong

One of the first novels I wrote, 
when I was, ye gods, twelve or thirteen, I don’t remember (or I have 
thankfully blanked the memory from my brain) was Star Trek 

On the first draft, the dialogue looked something like this:

“Maybe the attacker was a Klingon,” said Kirk.
“That is not logical, Captain,” said Spock.
“But he looked like a Klingon,” said Kirk.
“But then he turned into a furry white snow monster,” said Spock.
“That’s what puzzles me,” said Kirk.

And so on.

Graphic Conversation
image: Marc Wathieu

Well, neophyte though I was, even I could tell that was 
terrible dialogue. (And it tended to go on for three pages). But why, WHY did it suck rocks? That’s what I needed to pin down. Probably 
because so much was wrong, I settled on the most obvious (to me) 
problem, the boring repetition of “said.”

So I re-wrote:

“Maybe the attacker was a Klingon,” said Kirk suspiciously.
“That is not logical, Captain,” said Spock calmly.
“But he looked like a Klingon,” said Kirk insistently.
“But then he turned into a furry white snow monster,” said Spock
“That’s what puzzles me,” said Kirk dubiously.

Again, this was plainly awful.

Probably I read in some How To Write 
Novels That Don’t Bite book I read that verbs are more powerful than 


“Maybe the attacker was a Klingon,” Kirk suggested.
“That is not logical, Captain,” Spock objected.
“But he looked like a Klingon,” Kirk insisted.

“But then he turned into a furry white snow monster,” Spock pointed out.
“That’s what puzzles me,” admitted Kirk.

And so on for three more pages.

What’s the right answer? There is no singular answer, no exclusively perfect way to write the scene, except to mix it up, let it flow, don’t overdo any single convention, and read and try every writing “rule” there is until
you know the reason for the rule and know exactly how to stand it on its head.

At different points in my writing career I needed 
different advice. The editors who say things like, “Don’t overuse 
adverbs,” “Don’t use ‘said’ all the time,” AND “Don’t be afraid to 
use ‘said’ most of the time,” are
addressing writers such as my 
thirteen year old self, who made all of these mistakes.

Oh, believe me, once I discovered dialog beats, I became a dialog 
beat fiend. All dialog beats and nothing else would grow tiresome 
after a while too. It’s the mix of things that lets a novel flow. It’s a question of balance. And, past a certain level of 
proficiency, of personal taste.

I read a “How To Make A Bajillion and Win a Pulitzer” from an author 
who had, to my knowledge, done neither himself. He took a book which 
had won a century of acclaim, The Great Gatsby, and then edited the 
first chapter to point out how much better it would have been if 
every single adverb had been deleted. His argument went like this, 
”There’s no need to say, ‘She leaned forward eagerly,’ the fact that 
she leans forward shows she’s eager. The sentence should read, ‘She 
leans forward.'”

Uh huh. Whatever. I read the scene both ways, and I came to the 
conclusion that Scott Fitzgerald was a better author than this self-appointed editor.

My favorite example of an author deliberately flouting this “rule” is 
a sentence by Lois McMaster Bujold, in which she uses the tag line, 
”Miles shouted mildly.”

Obviously, such a sentence can only be used once, which is how often 
she uses it.

Tara Maya

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