Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Writing Tuesdays: Explaining Dialogue to My Uncle

HB:  Writing Tuesdays?
FB:  Yes.  Is that a problem?
HB:  Well, I was just thinking, you know, how much we like alliteration...
FB:  And you want it to be Writing Wednesdays.
HB:  Uh huh!
FB:  That means back-to-back posts on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
HB:  So?
FB:  We're lazy.
HB:  Aw!

My uncle has come to writing in his sixties after living a life of thrill-seeking adventure.  He is a camper, hiker, fisherman, hunter, explorer, former Marine, former Army Reservist, former police officer, former insurance adjuster, and contributor of at least two of the many boots on the ground featured in such military exploits as Operation Iraqi Freedom.

His first book just so happens to be about the last thing in the very long list above.  It is called In Spite of It All and it details the often-times Sisyphian ordeal of the 143rd Military Police Company of the Connecticut National Guard as they attempted to both survive and do their job in Baghdad from 2003-2004.  The publication of the book has been delayed due to legal issues (one of the perils of telling a true story), but you can keep tabs on the process over here, if you're so inclined.

While waiting for the red tape around his first book to be snipped away, my uncle has started writing his second book.  Book number two is a work of fiction, which features a young police officer squaring off against a criminal who is gaming the legal system so that he can avoid capture.

One of the issues he's running into is how to write dialogue.  His first book, being a work of non-fiction, didn't have any.  His second book, being fiction, has characters talking to one another about things like breaking cases and sweating perps, in the vein of all good detective stories.  Now that his characters are talking to one another, my uncle has begun wrestling with dialogue.

The issue, as my uncle discovered, is that dialogue is tricky to write well.  Being unsure of how to tackle the dialogue in his work, he decided to send an email off to his shiftless layabout of a nephew, whose one redeeming quality is that he puts words on paper occasionally.  I am that nephew (spoilers), and his question to me sounded almost exactly like this:

"When I am writing a conversation between two people, do I need to identify the speaker in each paragraph?  (Dan said, then Bill replied, then Dan remarked, etc.)"

I tried to answer his question as simply as possible and, since the answer also could potentially do double-duty as a blog post, that meant that I could just cut and paste into Blogger and not have to do nearly as much writing this week.  Ha ha!

This is what I told him:

Not always.
First of all, you should use "said" as often as you can.  "Said" is an invisible word.  There's almost no way you can use it too often. Stuff like "remarked" "replied" "countered" and so on are extremely noticeable to the reader, and should be used sparingly.
If there's just two people speaking, you can go for stretches where you don't have to use dialogue tags (that's the "Bill said" stuff).  So you can just have alternating dialogue.
However, if you do that, you should probably break it up with the occasional dialogue tag, so that the reader doesn't get confused as to who is speaking.  You may also want to break it up by giving a description of what the people are doing, or of other things going on in the environment, so that you don't get the "two disembodied voices talking in a white room" phenomenon.

And, because I'm a writer and I show and don't tell (because they drum that into your head with the Showing Stick the first week of writing boot camp), I decided to round things off with the following utterly ridiculous example:

"Hey, Dan," said Bill.  "What's with all the quacking?"
"Trying to get all my ducks in a row," said Dan.  "They're pretty feisty, so it's taking a while."
"I'd imagine."
"Yeah. I keep trying to coax them into standing still, but they get bored and start wandering around before they're all in a row."
"That's a problem."
Dan scratched his head as one of the headstrong waterfowl took an ungainly dive off the table.  "I'm not sure what to do."
"I hate to suggest this," said Bill, rubbing his chin.  "But have you tried tape?"
"Duck tape?"
"That's the worst pun I've ever heard, Bill.  You're fired!"

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