Emotive Dialogue

Cover of "Stranger in a Strange Land"
Cover of Stranger in a Strange Land

Yesterday I recorded our latest podcast for Fanboys on Fiction, and during the conversation, Ryan McKinley brought up the devilish problem of using “he said/she said” in dialogue passages.  This made me think of a good way that we could remove these redundant story killers from our dialogue and in the process make that dialogue more emotive or full of emotion.

To help us understand this technique, I thought I would re-write a passage from one of my favorite books Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein so that it uses he said/she said.  Here we go:

The following excerpt is from Chapter 17 of the novel, starting near the first line of dialogue:

“Okay, boss,” Miriam said.

“This is one for the ‘Real Experiences’ group,” said Harshaw.  “Specify on the cover that I want the narrator to have a sexy contralto voice —”

“Maybe I should try out for it,” she said.

“Not that sexy,” he said.  “Shut up.  Dig out that list of null surnames we got from the Census Bureau, pick one and put an innocent, mammalian first name with it, for the pen name.”

Notice how the “he said/she said” breaks up the action?  Now here it is as Heinlein wrote it:

“Okay boss,” Miriam acknowledged.

“This one is for the ‘Real Experiences’ group.  Specify on the cover shee that I want the narrator to have a sexy contralto voice—”

“Maybe I should try out for it.”

“Not that sexy.  Shut up.  Dig out that list of null surnames we got from the Census Bureau, pick one and put an innocent, mammalian first name with it, for a pen name…”

The most notable difference is that Heinlein simply eliminates the “he said/she said” by not slowing down the action, namely by removing the author’s markers for who is speaking all together.  Not only that, he gives the characters engaging and emotive dialogue that stands alone without the author’s asides.  Think of “he said/she said” as the author butting in to tell the reader something that they already know.  The dialogue itself must be full of emotion and power, thereby selling the conversation to the reader.

Another thing to think about is that we cannot simply use other verbiage like “acknowledged”, “stammered”, “stuttered” or “nodded” (which work in a pinch), but the answer is to make the dialogue so engaging and real that we can hear the individual voices of the characters coming through the dialogue.  Again, the point is for the reader to “see” the characters not have us “tell” them about the characters.

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Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

8 thoughts on “Emotive Dialogue

  1. The other thing that often works better than simple speaker identification is speaker action. People talk during a conversation, but they also make faces, wave at people they know, stand up to stretch, adjust the ship’s heading, check the edge of the blade they’re sharpening, run a finger along the rim of a wine glass, et al.

    Inserting an action tag in lieu of a dialog tag enables a writer to do a number of things at once.

    First, actions take time. Reading about that action internalizes the time required to do it. When a pause is called for, this marks it without blatantly labeling it as a pause. A dramatic conversation in particular is defined by what is not said as much as what is said–and how long it takes to not say it.

    Second, actions take place in the three spatial dimensions, and in the context of setting the writer creates. Dialog that goes too long without reference to either begins to sound as if it’s being delivered by talking heads. Far too often an author will labor at building worlds, or cities, or distant times, or any other form of detailed setting, only to allow it to vanish as soon as someone opens their mouth.

    Third, actions provide a separate narrative stream that can reinforce, undercut, or otherwise provide illumination for the dialog. Thus: A character speaks words of reconciliation while she sharpens the aforementioned blade. Another talks about how much he misses his girlfriend as he pets a stray cat. A third discusses the importance of craft while digging a grave.

    Action tags shouldn’t turn into blocking: not every line needs them. But given the choice between an ordinary dialog tag and an action tag, I go for the action tag more than 50% of the time. They are especially helpful in those nasty multi-person conversations, where you have to connect dialog to speaker in some way to avoid confusion.

    Sometimes I go for two or three thousand words–and I loves me some dialog, mind you–without a single “he said/she said.” I don’t avoid them when they’re the best way to do something. I just write such that I rarely find myself in that position.

  2. You make some excellent points and I know dialogue is an area I have a lot to learn so I try to learn from those who do it well. I agree that setting up the scene so the reader knows who’s talking and setting the tone, along with dialogue that communicates more than words is a great way to go. It’s just not always going to work. For example in my current novel, I have 3 main characters who are often in dialogue together so I have to put in who is speaking intermittently. I agree that making my dialogue better so it can stand on its own is something to work towards.

  3. I agree in principle, but Heinlein was a master and it’s obvious who’s saying what because he clues us in at the beginning of the sequence. Unfortunately, I’ve read far too many bits of dialogue where I’ve lost track of who says what after just one of two lines. And it definitely does not work once a third speaker joins in.

    He said/she said, he muttered/she muttered etc are all excellent tools, and should be used where appropriate. ‘Show don’t tell’ is another great tool. It should not become the be-all and end-all, or an unbreakable rule.

    For me the only unbreakable rule is to tell a good story.

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