Dialogue Algorithm

One of the common problems I've found while editing is an imbalance in my dialogue tags.

Early in the manuscript, I had too many tags - extraneous 'he said/she said's that (I know now) clutter the writing. I think I thought they added rhythm.

Later on, I found a lot of strong verbs. These aren't inherently bad, but there shouldn't be one on every line (as per my own advice).

Towards the middle of the manuscript, it seemed like every line had a dialogue tag inserted midsentence (this one I know was for rhythm).

It's like, every time I learned some new thing to do in dialogue, I got all excited about it and did it too freaking much.

Okay, so here's my "Less is More" algorithm. We'll see how well this works:
  1. Write dialogue such that the speaker's identity, emotion, and expression are clear without the need of dialogue tags.
  2. If it is impossible to make the speaker's identity clear through dialogue alone, add a simple tag (e.g. he said, she said). Add the first one on the end of the sentence, the next one in the front, the third in the middle. Alternate "Sam said" with "said Sam".
  3. If it is impossible to make the speaker's emotion or expression clear through dialogue alone, add an action sentence to the dialogue.
  4. If an action sentence is inappropriate or inadequate, use a dialogue tag with a strong verb (e.g. "he shouted", "he challenged").
  5. If the English verb does not exist to express the appropriate emotion or expression, use an adverb (e.g. "he said happily").
  6. Never use step 2 three times in a row.
  7. Never use steps 3, 4, or 5 twice in a row.
  8. Just to be safe, don't use steps 2, 3, 4, or 5 on every other line either.
I know (and I hope you do too) that even these are just guidelines - although it would make for a pretty decent novel-writing computer program. Hmm...

Anyway, I already see problems with this. What about establishing place? What about rhythm? This is still very much an art, but maybe with this algorithm I can come up with better dialogue on a first run than I (apparently) have been.


Hilabeans said...

I think Stephen King would have a problem with #5. Something about "Tom Swifties" - maybe I'm way off base.

When I write dialogue, I try to make it sound as natural as possible and attempt to balance “on-the-nose” with subtext. Interjecting physical movement is important, as well as reactions. A gaze shifting or a step back can be just as clear as if someone said, “I don’t like what you’re suggesting.” Sometimes movement / physicality can be used in lieu of spoken words and given its own paragraph. Silence can be powerful. Maybe it makes another character in the scene squirm a little, just like in real life.
Every writer is different in their approach – that’s the beauty of it all, right?


Adam Heine said...

That is the beauty of it, Hilary. And, as I said, these are just guidelines. Though the idea (at least in my head) is that you would hardly ever get down to #5. I know how bad adverbs are. I've killed enough of them.

Good comment about silence. I love tossing in a "He said nothing" or "He had no answer to that" in lieu of a line of dialogue.

Probably I like it too much. I've caught that a couple of times too, though not as often as my other problems.

Anonymous said...

These are good ideas. I especially like number three.

A huge breakthrough for me was realizing that, if you've just written an action clearly executed by one character, you can then launch into dialogue without hitting return and without using speech tags at all. For years, I was under the strange impression (I swear a teacher told me this) that a line of dialogue by someone who wasn't already speaking had to start on a new line. Thus, I would write things like:

Sarah slammed the door.
"I'm home," she said.

When it's much more clean and efficient simply to write:

Sarah slammed the door. "I'm home."

As regards number two of your list, I prefer "said Sam" pretty strongly, so I generally don't use "Sam said." When you substitute a pronoun for the name, you practically always put the verb second, so you end up getting variation anyway. Numbers four and five can be risky. My personal rule is that if it describes how the line was said (in a way that isn't evident from the words), then go for it - so "shouted Sam" is fair game. If, however, the action verb or adverb tells the reader something the line already tells them, I'd skip it. For example, there's no need to say:

"Bet you can't do better!" Sam challenged.

Because what he's said is a challenge. (I've even heard of people writing, "I'm sorry," he apologized.)

Similarly, you don't need to say:

"Well, I'm so glad my injury makes you feel better," said Sarah sarcastically.

The sarcasm is pretty clear. If you want, you can make her roll her eyes or something - it's a few extra words, but it's a nice way to show instead of tell. :)