If you just sat down to read this and haven’t read part A of this installment yet, please click here. This installment will talk more about how you can use dialogue to augment your writing, while the last part explained how to create strong, believable dialogue.
So how can you use dialogue to your advantage? Dialogue is just dialogue, right? You need it one way or another; it isn’t an extraneous addition. That’s completely true, but that doesn’t mean you’re required to think inside the box. Like anything, dialogue is a tool, and tools are there for you to use in a variety of ways. Before I get into anything fancy, though, I want to bring out one more point that I believe is key to creating quality dialogue.
First off, note that what I’m going to say here isn’t what your writing teacher told you. It isn’t what the “experts” will tell you. In spite of that, I’m right. That sounds more than a little conceited, but I’m deadly serious here, and I’m by far not the only one who holds the same view on this. What am I talking about?
“When writing dialogue attributions, almost always use said.”
It’s likely you’ve heard that before. The argument behind this “staple writing rule” is that said is invisible to the reader, and that using other verbs for dialogue is distracting and useless to your reader. There is merit behind this mindset—I don’t deny that. However, it’s a very robotic way of thinking. How should you look at it? Well that’s up to you, and in the end, your personal writing style is what matters. Let’s dive into this a little deeper.
There are pros and cons behind using only said. I’m not going to draw up a list here, because it’s not that clear-cut. When you use said, it is generally invisible. It’s the simplest attribution there is; it’s telling the reader who just “said” the last chunk of dialogue. There’s nothing wrong with that, however as a writer, you should never overuse a word. It doesn’t matter what that word is—said is subject to that rule just like anything else.
Said is not invisible when you use it too much.
Some might argue against that train of thought, but you can’t argue against what a reader sees when they read your work. I was a reader before I was a writer, and when I read a “well respected” author and saw said used over and over and over… I saw those attributions. It bugged me, and that was back when I was fairly young. It bugs me even more so now. It’s lazy. It’s a cop-out that uses the “expert opinion” as a fallback crutch.
But what if you don’t use said? What if you use screamed, or cried, or whispered? What if you take into account what’s happening in the scene before choosing what attribution to use? There’s nothing exactly wrong with that, however you don’t want to be redundant.
If your story just read … “What’s wrong with you? I know you did it!” Sally accused. … you’ve got a problem.
Why? Because there was no need to tell the reader that Sally was accusing someone of something; she just said “I know you did it!”, so why do you need to state that the dialogue there was an accusation? You don’t, and that’s a prime argument that any writing teacher will give you for the exclusive use of said.
That’s only looking at one side of it, though. It’s perfectly possible to find an attribution in most cases that isn’t redundant, and isn’t spelled s-a-i-d.
If your story just read … “It’s okay, I believe you.” Sally whispered. … do you have a problem?
No, you don’t. If you simply put said in place of whispered there, the true intent of the dialogue wouldn’t have been portrayed. There are a lot of instances where this is true, and sadly that’s something that a lot of teachers completely ignore in their discourse. I argued quite a bit with an instructor of mine about this subject (I can be a bit too difficult for my own good), and after a long discussion, he basically backed down and said that there are many different ways to write.
The fact is, you can indeed distract your reader if you continually force a synonym for said into your dialogue. As with anything, you need a balance. Your writing should flow and incite your reader’s interest, so just the same as using synonyms of said again and again, using said again and again is not going to make your reading flow. Striking that balance between the two can be difficult, but in the end it’s usually pretty apparent what attribution fits each piece of dialogue. If someone asked a question, asked is a perfect attribution. If someone said something in a harsh, quick tone, barked is a workable attribution. If someone just said something… you can still use said. You know your writing better than anyone else, so make a concerted effort to piece your dialogue together correctly.
How can we break this all up though? Well, we of course do not need a “he said/she said” after every spoken phrase. In a two-way conversation, it’s often clear who is saying what after you’ve established who is speaking in turn. This might seem like a very basic principle, but it’s a key component of writing dialogue that is enjoyable to read. Make sure you don’t confuse your reader, though.
What I want to talk about more deeply here is something called a beat. Beats are very simple, but at the same time, when you utilize them correctly, the effect is drastic. Let me illustrate.
“What am I supposed to do?” Tom asked.
“Well I don’t know,” Mary replied. “Have you tried talking to her?”
“Absolutely not! She doesn’t even know I exist, Mary.”
“That’s the problem, silly. It’s up to you to change that!”
There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, pick up a book off the best seller rack and you’ll likely read a passage of dialogue that is structured just like this. That’s just lovely, but it’s boring. It’s weak. It’s lazy! How can we use beats to make it better?
“What am I supposed to say?” Tom asked.
“Well I don’t know,” Mary shot him a knowing look. “Have you tried talking to her?”
“Absolutely not! She doesn’t even know I exist, Mary.”
She laughed and slugged him in the shoulder. “That’s the problem, silly. It’s up to you to change that!”
See how that works? There’s only one attribution in that exchange. A beat is extremely simple, but it goes a very long way towards livening up your dialogue. The first example was boring, simple, and told you very little about either character. Even though this is an extremely short example of dialogue, in the example above you can at least immediately see Mary’s personality a little. There’s more life in your dialogue when you use beats.
In technical terms, a beat is a sentence of a character’s action, before, after, or in the middle of a line of dialogue that shifts the reader’s focus to that character. It eliminates the need for an attribution, and it gives us a much better image of the scene.
The key is to use balance. Don’t become a mindless drone of the “expert’s” creed. Pull from each practice, mix it up, and make your writing flow. That means you shouldn’t be afraid to use said, synonyms of said, or beats. One thing I will suggest is that you make pretty heavy use of beats. Don’t be stingy with them. It’s much cleaner to the eye to read actions than it is to constantly wade through he saids and she saids, including any synonyms thereof. It might take a little bit more effort, but you should never sacrifice quality for ease of writing. That’s another thing I’ve heard from teachers. “Just use said. It’s invisible to the reader, and it’s easier on you.” Easier on you? I think the silliness behind that idea speaks for itself.
We’ve finally come to the end of this installment of Breathe Life Into Your Writing! I hope you were able to get a good idea of how you personally can create strong, well written dialogue. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.
There will be more to come soon, but in the meantime, be sure to read up on the other parts you might have missed!
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So don’t be shy, lazy, or difficult. Just click one of the options and press “vote“. If you’ve got a more specific reason, go ahead and type it in, or leave a comment here. I love to hear from my readers, and it’s nice to hear what people actually find interesting to read about here. Maybe the results will sway me to focus on certain aspects of the blog a bit more.
Thanks for reading everyone!
In this installment I’m going talk about something a little more… epic. Like personification and metaphors, this tool will go a long way towards giving something bland and boring new life. What’s different about it, though? It’s far more difficult to pull off, unlike the relatively simple practice of using personification and metaphors. What is it?
I think this concept makes a lot of newer writers nervous—like they want to use it effectively, but are afraid that they won’t be able to execute it correctly. Those concerns aren’t unwarranted. There are certainly simple uses of symbolism that you may have already used without thinking, but creating lasting, powerful symbols that carry through your writing is another story.
Because symbols are so… symbolic, it’s easy to turn them into clichés. Clichés are something you want to avoid as a writer. Some people like them, and I’m one of the few that believes they can add to a story with careful thought, but that’s another topic entirely. The point is, symbols can easily become clichés. Why should we avoid that? We’ll get to that a little later. For now, let’s look at some examples of simple symbols.
A man wearing pastel colors with a wide smile on his face.
The permeating smell of death inside a dreary old mansion.
A crusty pile of bones deep in the woods.
These are all pretty simple, and that’s the point. You probably wouldn’t think twice about any of these things as you read them within a story, but they are indeed symbols. The first would immediately tell you the pleasant, sunny demeanor of the man (unless you use it as an oxymoron, and he’s really an axe murderer). The second paints an immediate picture and mood behind a very scary venue. If a mansion smells like death, it’s not a very nice place. The third example is the most obvious use of symbolism. If your protagonist finds a pile of bones in the woods, it immediately tells him that he’s in a dangerous place. It creates suspense.
Did you notice? Each of these symbols have very different effects! The first might tell the reader about someone’s character (or create suspense if the symbol is an oxymoron), the second paints a better picture of the mood and setting, and the third primarily creates suspense, as well as telling you the mood of those woods. That’s the thing about symbols; they can achieve a variety of effects in comparison to the other writing practices I’ve highlighted in this series. While a metaphor might just make your reading a little more interesting, and might help set the mood a little but, even the smallest, subtlest symbols can paint a picture of your story in very graphic ways. That’s why it’s easier to mess up on them!
But how about bigger symbols? Ones that stretch far across your tale? Those are the most difficult to use to perfection, because they usually go a very long way to conveying two very important qualities to your entire story.
The first is mood and setting. Usually mood and setting only apply to one scene. The type of words you choose within a scene go a long way to telling the mood. If you employ verbs like “sweeping, drifted, ebbed, murmured” the mood of the scene is quite clearly slow, dreary, measured. It’s probably building suspense and leading up towards actions. If you use verbs like “snapped, bolted, snatched, barked” the mood of the scene is frantic, urgent, intense. As you can see, your word usage tells the mood of one particular scene.
Setting is a bit different, and not so straightforward. It’s up to you and your skill as a writer to paint the picture of your setting correctly. Setting directly relates to mood, and vice versa. If you write about a dark, scary tunnel full of ghostly whispers, the setting is going to make the mood scary. You can tell why setting is important now, can’t you? If you create a lackluster image of the setting, the reader probably won’t be able to interpret the correct mood, or a mood at all! If the reader doesn’t feel the mood of the scene, it’s very hard for the words on the page to draw them into your writing.
How can powerful symbols carry both setting and mood across your story, though? Well, that usually goes hand in hand with the theme of the story. Theme generally is a wide-stretching mood cast upon your entire story, but it also directly relates to the conflict and goal, beginning and end. It also makes up the entire message of the story. It tells the reader why the story is what the story is, as well as the purpose of the story. Before I create a few examples, look at a powerful use of symbolism in a famous piece of fiction.
In A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury, a butterfly is stepped on far in the past by a time traveler from the future. That small death changes history in a drastic way. Where’s the symbol there? Well, it’s the butterfly. That seemingly small symbol highlights a powerful theme of change. That tiny, insignificant insect changed everything, and placed a fierce level of guilt upon the person who stepped on it, and that guilt goes a long way to setting a very dramatic mood. Pretty epic stuff, right? Doesn’t it make you want to think up a powerful symbol for your own story?
Let’s look at some examples now. Open your mind and let your creativity flow! I hope these can stir up your imagination. Focus on the structure of these—how they work—and then sit down to think up some powerful symbols of your own!
Deep in the blistering Sahara, a spelunking hero battles murderous smugglers within looming desert caves. A sandstorm howls a violent tune as the combat ensues. The protagonist fights valiantly, and bests the thieves as he blows the entrance to the cave shut with a bundle of dynamite, entombing them with their ill-gotten treasure. As he steps back onto the blistering desert sands, the storm dies down and rain begins to fall.
A withered old man sits on the porch during a nice big family reunion… except it’s not nice at all. His children and grandchildren bicker like kindergarteners. He tries his best to keep the peace, but his words fall on deaf ears as grudges and rivalries lock in the negative mood. Sat upon his old wicker chair on the porch, he watches the tranquil, trickling creek in front of the house. Since his childhood, he’s played along the bank of the gentle stream, but now the feed of clear crystal water is stopped up and dirty. Taking a long deep breath, he thinks on a kind and happy past before passing on.
As you can see, these examples aren’t short little sentences. They aren’t simple visuals that portray a mood or help paint a better picture of a setting. These larger, stronger symbols can be literal or figurative—usually both. They can be embodied in a concrete object or something more ethereal; maybe an emotion, or a state of affairs, or even a spoken phrase. Something that almost always makes up that symbolic connection is a visual (or perceivable) symbol directly connecting to a figurative message. Let’s pick each of the examples above apart and see how they utilize symbolism.
In the first one, we have something like you’d see in an Indiana Jones flick. You might think that in a story involving so much action, there isn’t a whole lot of room for symbolism. Well, that’s not exactly true. When you’ve got lots of action, there might not be a great deal of room for deep, thoughtful symbols. They don’t always fit into a fast paced, action-packed tale. That doesn’t mean these kind of stories need to be devoid of strong symbols though. In the example above, I used weather as a symbol.
I think we can all think of a movie we saw where rain poured down as the protagonist cried or dealt with some saddening emotional situation. That’s a very cliché symbol to use. Like I said above, we should generally avoid clichés. They’re predictable and they can very easily make your story boring. That’s why I personally dislike the vast majority of romantic comedies. The symbolism and structure is usually very “cookie-cutter”, and that’s basically just another word for cliché. When a romantic comedy like 500 Days of Summer comes along, I’m pleasantly surprised. That one broke down certain walls and did a great job at finding originality within a genre that’s been beaten to death, but I’m straying from the point.
In my action story example, while the protagonist battles the bad guys, a violent sandstorm rages outside. The wild weather mirrors the action the hero is involved in within the caves, and once he comes out victorious and back into the desert, the storm dissipates and turns to rain. I took the old rain cliché and gave it a twist. Instead of the rain symbolizing pain and sorrow, it’s an emotional release. A washing, peaceful symbol contrasting the frantic, stressful scene that made up the rest of the story. It’s a happy ending, and it allows the reader to set the story down feeling good. Cliché? A little bit, but it works. Never underestimate the power of a soothing happy ending. I might enjoy and write stories with a darker, emotional undertone, but that doesn’t mean happy endings are all bad. You just have to figure out what fits your story best.
In the second example, we have a very different use of symbolism. It’s a very reflective story, and the theme underlying is that of change. The protagonist, the old man, is surrounded by stress, bad feelings. He’s thinking back on his childhood; on happy times when that stress wasn’t there. The symbol here is the creek he played around as a child. While times were once tranquil—just like the stream—now they are stressful and dirtied up. As a reflection of that, the creek is now stopped up and tainted. The theme entails change of situation and a change of times, and the symbol of the creek plays a powerful symbol between those things.
So, now that you’ve seen some examples of symbolism, do you think you can put them into your story? It takes a bit of effort creating those powerful links and ideas, and even more effort putting emotional strength and visuals behind your symbols, but if you understand your story on a deep level, the symbols will almost create themselves.
Unlike the last two chapters of this series, there’s no exercise to test out your skills this time. Instead, post a comment telling about a symbol you’ve used in your writing before, or one that you’d like to use now!
Be sure to check out the first two installments of the Breathe Life Into Your Writing! series in the links below if you haven’t read them yet! Stay tuned for the next part, where I’ll talk about… dialogue!
Have you ever written a paragraph of a story you were working on, read it back, and grumbled at how plain, uninspiring, or boring it was? Well, we all have. Even if you’ve got ideas in your head, as great as they might sound inside, sometimes you’ll put them on the screen and completely disappoint yourself. What sounded like an exciting, action packed scene in your mind now looks like a trudging block of exposition. It’s boring.
Well don’t let it get you down. It’s just something that’s going to happen when you’re pounding your thoughts into material. Quite often, even if what you just wrote looks terrible to you, it’s still a vital step in the creative process. It’s extremely important to put your thoughts down in written form. So many “writers” have the story all in their heads! It might be amazing and inspiring and wonderful, but no one can see it. That’s why actually filtering the ideas out of your mind into visible form is so important, but it’s of course only the first step.
Let’s go back to that boring block of exposition. Odds are that you’re going to have to dissect it, chop it up, sew it back together, and send a bolt of lightning into it before “It’s alive!” Silly, but truer than you think. Quite often you will have to remove entire sections of writing, even if your productive ego tells you “What are you doing!?” It just feel unnatural and wrong to delete something you put in your story, but trust me, don’t be afraid of it. Often less is far more, and there’s only one way to find out when that’s true.
But that still doesn’t say much for energizing that dead chunk of text. If you chop up paragraph cadavers and splice them back together, you’re still using dead word-meat. What do you need next? A bolt of lightning! But where do you find that? Well, there are many viable alternatives to a lightning rod affixed to your roof. Writing is an art, and just as there are a myriad different ways to bring a painting to life, the same can be said when it comes to writing. I’m going to bring out one that I personally like to employ in my work.
Personification. What’s that? Well, basically it’s when you take an lifeless, inanimate object, and give it active, even human traits. If you cut eyes and a mouth into your sandwich and make it talk, I suppose that’s personification. Thankfully we can be much more subtle when it comes to writing. How can we do this? Well the best way to explain is with an example.
The wind moved the curtains.
This sentence of exposition is to the point, but it’s also pretty boring. I think I just yawned.
The blackened night exhaled a heavy breath against the curtains as they fluttered in a ghostly dance.
Alright, I’ll admit I went a little overboard there, but this looks a lot better, doesn’t it?
Looking at those two sentences, why is the second one funner to read? It’s hardly because of the dramatic descriptive adjectives. Don’t believe me? Then let’s strip it bare, leaving only the personifications.
The night exhaled a breath against the curtains as they fluttered and danced.
It still sounds pretty darn good, doesn’t it? Some would even prefer this version to the last. Why? Well that’s a key point when it comes to personification. A writer can pile on all the fancy adjectives he wants onto his work, but when you overuse adjectives, you’re telling the reader what something is like, you’re not showing them what it’s like. That’s probably the most widely preached mantra of writing: Show, don’t tell.
When you utilize a personification as opposed to a handful of adjectives, you’re giving your setting human characteristics. Obviously, any human is going to more fully connect with human characteristics. It hits home harder, and it wraps us up in the scene. You see? That’s a personification right there “It wraps us into to the scene”. Obviously a sentence or paragraph cannot physically wrap around your body, but through use of a personification, your mind immediately grasps the idea behind that phrase and interprets it in a very literal, visceral way. That’s why personifications are so powerful when read. You might not even see them as you read, but they’re there, and they make you keep reading.
So now that you understand exactly what personification is, why don’t you try it out? I guarantee that you already use it in your writing, even if you never thought about it before, but now that we are thinking about it, let’s practice and evolve this particular skill.
Below is a list of random, lifeless objects. They’re lifeless because they’re not breathing and thinking, but you personally can breathe life into them through personification, and they will repay the favor by breathing life into your story.
So take each of these boring, inanimate objects, and use personification to place them each in a sentence that imbues them with life and human characteristics. Remember to make good use of active verbs, not passive ones (like were, had, and was), and for a twist, try to use little to no adjectives in each sentence. Don’t be afraid of using emotion! Just because a mansion can not feel literal sorrow, it can look very sad and alone as it sits atop a dark, cloudy mountaintop, right?
Post your practice results in the comments section and let me know how personification works for you!
Ready for part two? Read the next lesson here: Breathe Life Into Your Writing! Part II: Metaphors & Similes