Let’s Talk

Good dialog is critical to good writing, after all, drama is not always about action, sometimes it relies on communication, or more often, miscommunication. Further, unless your characters are communicating in a nearly context-less manner – such as emails or texting — there are often other aspects that provide subtle cues, which impart more meaning to a scene. Witness the following:

Sal looked around the freezer. Chunks of meat hung on large hooks from the ceiling.
“What are you doing here?” Sal asked.
“Oh, just doing my job,” Victor replied. With a smack, his hand struck a side of beef.
“You work here?”
Victor stared at his hand, now glistening crimson. “Sometimes.”

Beats and tags

The mechanics of dialog are relatively straightforward. Someone speaks, and someone else replies. But who is speaking? Attributions are needed in dialog to allow the reader to follow who is saying what. There are two basic methods for doing this, sometimes done in combination, namely beats and tags. A tag is a direct attribution in the manner of an identifier (e.g., a name) alone with some equivalent to said or ask. i.e., Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.” We know precisely that Tim is speaking. Fairly simple, but sometimes terribly overused.

Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.”
“But why?” Roger asked. “I’ve done nothing.”
“You had an affair with his sister,” Tim said.
“Jennette is his sister? I had no idea,” Roger said.
“Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?” Tim asked.
“I can try to apologize,” Roger said.
“Good luck with that. He is usually armed,” Tim said.

As you can see, we clearly know who is speaking – but is all the attribution necessary? No, of course not. We have two characters talking to each other, back and forth, the attributions (beyond the initial identifiers) are annoyingly redundant, and can be eliminated.

Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.”
“But why?” Roger asked. “I’ve done nothing.”
“You had an affair with his sister.”
“Jennette is his sister? I had no idea,”
“Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?”
“I can try to apologize.”
“Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

Eliminating attributions is not without caveats in the sense that if the conversation is interrupted, or one of the characters shuts up, and the other keeps talking, we may need to throw in an attribution to reorient the reader. See the following:

“Jennette is his sister? I had no idea.”
Tim rolled his eyes.
“I can try to apologize,” Roger offered.
“Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

Things get more complicated when more than two characters are talking, like a round-table type discussion. Still, it can be handled, by not letting the conversation hop around like a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest.

Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.”
“But why?” Roger asked. “I’ve done nothing.”
Joe looked incredulous. “You had an affair with his sister.”
“Jennette was his sister? I had no idea,” Roger admitted.
“Well you know now. What are you going to do about it?” Joe asked.
“I can try to apologize.”
Tim scoffed. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

In this example, I had my three characters fill certain roles in the conversation. Tim became the summarizer, Joe, the interrogator, and Roger the accused. Further, I started with Tim and ended with Tim to book-end the conversation.

The Beat Goes On
A beat, on the other hand, is more of an implied attribution, such as a background character action or movement, that combined with a chunk of speech, indicates that the person is talking. For example, Tim stared with wide eyes at Roger. “He’s going to kill you.” The implication here is that Tim is speaking, though you can say it might also be Roger. This is where text placement plays a role. Consider the following:

Tim stared at Roger with wide eyes. “He’s going to kill you.”
Tim stared at Roger with wide eyes.
“He’s going to kill you.”

Is this Tim or Roger speaking? Hard to tell, and the reader might have to slow down and re-read to answer that question, which is not a good situation because you risk losing the reader’s attention and focus.

Adverbs in attributions
One of the marks of amateurish dialog is the use of adverbs with attributions. (i.e., Tim spoke loudly, Roger replied happily, Tim asked questioningly.) That is not to say that you can’t use adverbs to get your meaning across in an early draft, but they should be pinched out before you get to a critique review draft. Either delete them entirely, or alter your speech to imply the effect, or add a beat to infer what you intended.

“He’s going to kill you,” Tim said emphatically.
“But why?” Roger said questioningly. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“You had an affair with his sister,” Tim said accusingly.

First off, saying something emphatically is an intonation, like raising your voice, jabbing a finger, or something like that. Hence:
“He’s going to kill you,” Tim said in a raised voice.

Second, doing anything questioningly is either asking or acting like you don’t understand.
Tim tilted his head and pursed his lips. “But why? I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Third, sometimes just choose a better verb or attribution.
“You had an affair with his sister,” Tim accused.

Attribution variation
Be careful with attributions, though. “Said” is the accepted standard. Some replacements of said make sense, like the word “accuse” mentioned earlier. You can also grouse, mumble, whisper, and shout. But you can’t chortle or laugh and speak at the same time. They are separate actions.
Tim chortled. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”
If you really want some other options, consider these:
Still, “said” is the default, and overuse of substitutes is akin to the overuse of a thesaurus, which sends the message that you are not to be taken seriously.

Beats Vs Attributions
The trend nowadays is not to use tags but rather beats. That said, beats have the problem in shifting attention away from the ongoing conversation, and has the potential to put “noise” in the mind of the reader as they are trying to follow the conversation. A suggestion would be to limit the use of beats, particularly if they don’t aid the discussion.

Roger rubbed his arm and glanced toward the window. “But why? I’ve done nothing.”
Tim scratched his nose and adjusted his collar. “You had an affair with his sister.”

Argh! Give these guys some cortisone, ADD medication, or get rid of the beats entirely. Rule of thumb, if it doesn’t contribute to the scene, it has to go.

However, the judicious use of beats has the ability to add emotion and weight to a scene, that would require narrative elaboration.

Roger lifted his cup of tea, it wobbled slightly in his grip. “Jennette is his sister? I had no idea.”
Tim narrowed his eyes. “Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?”
Roger blinked. “I could apologize.”
Tim smirked. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

The beats impart some personality into the scene, beyond what is being said. They can also completely change the interpretation of the scene:

Roger smirked. “Jennette is his sister? I had no idea.”
Tim stared with wide eyes. “Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?”
Roger settled back in his chair and glanced at his watch. “I could apologize.”
Tim grimaced and leaned in. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

In the first instance, Roger is nervous, in the second, cool as a cucumber. So what is going to happen when Roger apologizes? Will he wet himself, or shove the pissed off brother out the window? Maybe they’ll talk first, but whatever they do — they won’t be chortling their dialog.

I hope this discussion has helped. Creating good dialog is such a complicated chore that I’ve only scratched the surface. Here are some links that might help continue the thread.




Drinking from the Fire Hose

Consider what follows as a possible approach to managing submissions when you have an outrageous number of high-school students in your writing classes.

The bane of every teacher is having to be their editor on issues they should already have mastered. When you have 30+ students in a class, having to re-teach high school students on how to use a comma is simply an unacceptable waste of time.

For what it is worth, my suggestion is to push as much of the pick-and-shovel work of writing onto the students. There are tools out there that provide feedback, but one, in particular, has promise and a low price tag (e.g., free) — that tool is PaperRater.

This tool can provide quantitative and qualitative feedback on a paper. It will not assess content (that is, the cognitive logic of the paper) but it will help greatly with clarity and syntax.  Both of these must be mastered before a paper can be evaluated for content.

So, how does this help you with a circus tent filled with students? First, have students use PaperRater during their draft revision process. This will deal with the need for immediate feedback and insulate the teacher from some of the pedantic aspects of early draft writing. Secondly, emphasize that if students are not getting at least a “B” on the paper (as assessed by PaperRater), they should not consider turning it in. That is not a hard and fast requirement but highly recommended to avoid having to read papers that should have never been turned in. (Teachers know what I’m talking about; the infamous zero/first draft paper that is the equivalent to brain vomit)

Once students have cleaned up and refined their work using PaperRater, teachers can further leverage the tool to provide assessments on the work the instant students turn it in. To do that, teachers should use PaperRater’s electronic submissions capability to their advantage. The capability is documented at:

That capability will put the onus of generating assessments of student writing on the students the instant they turn it in. I understand that students get a “receipt” when they submit the work, but it is not clear if they get a copy of the assessment or not. In either case, they still have access to PaperRater.

Teachers will still have to evaluate the papers for content; there is no better tool for that than the human brain. But, if what you are reading is syntactically and grammatically correct, evaluating the content should be less of a chore.

Still drinking from the fire-hose, but at least you can use a ladle.

A caveat for this approach is that the free version of PaperRater is limited to 6 pages. Here’s the info from PaperRater:
We allow 6 pages at roughly 300 words/page for our free service. We have a premium service at http://premium.PaperRater.com that allows up to 15 pages. If we go higher than that, Grendel can’t fully digest your submission (he gets indigestion). Of course, if your paper exceeds the limit, you are welcome to split it up into multiple submissions.

To structure or not to structure

To be honest, to not structure is not an option.  No one wants to read stream of consciousness, at least not willingly.  One of the first pieces of advice I’ve had on revision is the need to revise for structure before you delve into content. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense in that scene-and-sequel events that make up a story are interdependent. Moving scene A before scene B can change any number of consequential events.  It can also play havoc with your plot (presuming you have one), but may be a necessity to stay faithful to your timeline, or the laws of physics. (Wow, Jim is at the lake and in outer space!).

As an example, I spent last November (2013) cranking out a contemporary young adult novel, tentatively titled “Jonathan of Jamesville High.” One of the difficulties of Nano writing is that it takes place in the frenzied environment of 30 days to generate 50K words. So when I am struggling to kick out the requisite daily number of words, trying to set and keep events in their proper order can be quite a challenge. You also get into the challenge of trying to maintain consistency of character appearance, their names, locations and setting details.

That said, the added difficulty, at least for me, is that I don’t reread my previous Nano content (that is the only way I can avoid my inner critic from barking at me).  So it was, that I often tossed in a scene that I needed to come earlier, and noted that before moving on to more content.  By Nov 30th, I had 50K words, but when I reread it, the structure was an absolute mess.  To make matters worse, I used a multi-stranded plot, which wove characters in and out of the plot-line in some fashion. (I’d like to say in a deliberate way, but I’d be lying).  The coupe de grace was that I had used a school schedule that is no longer in use.

To some extent this was not a surprise; I wanted to capture events in a public high-school, but did not want to get buried in bureaucratic and administrative detail.  For one thing, the constraints of Nano made it impossible to quickly research, backtrack and try to shoe-horn everything within a more contemporary class schedule.  So I proceeded with what I vaguely  remember from the Jurassic era of my youth.  That worked well enough to get me to my word goal.  Six months later, when I dragged the manuscript out of my digital folder and looked at it, I realized I had a major problem (one of many).

The first problem I had to resolve was coming up with a class schedule that would have some passing resemblance with reality.  My wife, a high-school teacher of 25 years, gave me her school’s bell schedule. This proved to be invaluable in figuring out what kids are faced with when it comes to number of classes per day, lunch periods, and minutes per class period (or block).  I already had some classes defined in the text and the general order. However, what threw me the most was the schedule is not linear, rather it is cyclical — that is to say — it varies between X day and Y day.  Classes on X day are different lessons than Y day, and the school year alternates between the two.  Please note, there is A LOT more to the philosophy and implementation of school schedules than what I am talking about in this post, but it would be a serious digression to get into that.

Once I pinned down the schedule, I had to pick the classes, and where lunch was supposed to be.  Since I had more than one character, this proved to be quite the challenge.  Finally, I picked apart every scene in the story, stuck a day and time on it, and rearranged it in a chronological format.  Now when I reread the piece, obvious gaps and discrepancies in the plot-line jumped out.  At this point, I’m still struggling to iron out problems and fill in gaps, but the story hangs together better than it did before.  Now I just need to figure out how to handle simultaneous chronological scenes, but that is less of an issue than getting the timeline right in the first place.