“James Blish told me I had the worst case of ‘said bookism’ (that is, using every word except said to indicate dialogue). He told me to limit the verbs to said, replied, asked, and answered and only when absolutely necessary.” – Anne McCaffrey
This month Ed and I flew to North Carolina to attend the funeral of one of his former colleagues. We walked out of thick heat into an air conditioned room filled with strangers. I had never met any of the people gathered and Ed had not seen them in more than thirty years. We approached the casket and a woman Ed believed to be the man’s wife shook Ed’s hand. “Thank you for coming.” Her eyes did not engage. She turned to me and Ed said, “This is Nita, my wife.” As the woman heard Ed’s voice, she turned back to him, eyes wide and flooding, “Ed Sweeney! It’s Ed Sweeney.”
She led us through the room, tapping an arm here, touching a shoulder there, and the strangers began to greet us. A man in a russet blazer became Bob, the company’s banker. A silver-haired gentleman in a navy suit turned into John, the engineering expert. And before our very ears, the tall man in the brown suit became Larry, Ed’s beloved former boss from so many years before. After each introduction Ed said, “I didn’t recognize him until he opened his mouth.”
Sadly, last week Ed and I flew to California for yet another funeral, this time for Ed’s father. I watched Ed, his mother, sister and brother make arrangements amid grief and exhaustion. After four days of planning, we found ourselves in the reception hall after the funeral mass. This time we both knew the family, but Ed had difficulty identifying the faces of his parents’ friends. Again, he said. “As soon as they began to speak, I knew them.”
That’s the experience we writers must create for our readers when we write dialogue. Each human voice is distinct, recognized by the listener through tone and inflection. Our readers do not have this luxury. Each writer must make our characters “heard.”
We can use speech tags (Jane said) but tags alone make the dialogue flat. And some writers rely on adverbs (Jane said excitedly), but adverbs simply inflate the tag and do not add the type of inflection the reader needs to intuit who’s speaking from what is on the page.
In the final chapter of her award-winning novel, Larry’s Party, Carol Shields shows how to write dialogue by capturing the essence of a dinner party: conversation. Shields writes ten consecutive pages (pp. 306-315) with nine characters speaking unattributed dialogue. Amazingly, the reader always knows who is speaking.
Shields uses several techniques to manage this feat. She gives some characters a distinctive pattern of speech such as a unique vocabulary, particular throwaway words and phrases, tight or loose wording, and run-on or staccato sentences. Shields also uses types of speech such as sarcasm, dialect, cynicism, poor grammar, inappropriate modifiers or jargon. And sometimes Shields relies on a particular subject matter to cue the reader into who’s speaking. A golf pro might turn every sentence into a golf analogy while a college professor might recount only experiences involving his students. Once Shields identifies the character’s unique way of speaking it becomes obvious to the reader.
Even in memoir, writers must avoid making all “characters” sound the same. My father, for example, paused between sentences and looked away before finishing. But my words run together, tumbling over each other, sometimes causing him to ask me to repeat myself. If I play up this contrast when I write scenes between my father and I, the reader will easily follow the dialogue.
If your characters were in the dark, could you tell who was speaking? If someone else read your dialogue aloud to a third person, could that other listener easily follow? In revising dialogue, I try to stay awake to the nuances of speech and to hear the voices in my head. I want to do them justice, to bring them alive on the page. What better way than to let them be heard?