Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday Feedback: Let's Talk Talk Again, She Intonated, Chimed, Roared, Bellowed.

Shhh, she said with her inside voice. . .

My pal (and excellent teacher) David Etkin was reminding me of this POST from our first summer of Teacher's Write! on dialogue tags and how they're supposed to disappear.

I think it's a good post. That the information in it still holds true.

I mean, sometimes your characters (and mine!) are going to whisper something rather than say it. My teen characters are all way too fond of blurting.

But for the most part, your characters should only say stuff, not intonate, chime, bellow, or so on.

Elmore Leonard's third rule of his TEN RULES is to "never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue."

My eleventh rule might be that once you know your ten rules, never say "never," of course.

But the thing with dialogue tags is that they really should CLARIFY and disappear, which is, fyi, yes, a change from the way masters of the art like Hemingway used to write.

Current common wisdom is that you neither want a string of dialogue that reads: he said, she said, he said, she said, he said and so on, because it becomes really robotic and distracting, nor do you want dialogue tags that make the reader stop and go, "Uh, huh? How does intonating something actually sound?"

Think about a REAL conversation between people. Sure, we might intonate something, but if we do, it's in HOW the ACTION AROUND IT changes the way it is said. And that's what the writer needs to do: create strong character and action around the dialogue, or choose the right words OF dialogue, such that the way something is said is a given as the reader reads.

Anyway, I'll try to find an example in my rough YA manuscript I'm working on now to share with you, and I invite you, as always, to put up a brief excerpt -- dialogue related or not -- for feedback.

If you've never been to Friday Feedback before, her are the rules regarding the type of feedback you should provide:

• Does the excerpt "hook" or compel you to keep reading? If yes, why? If no, why not?

• What else works for you, and why?

• What doesn’t work for you (if something doesn't) and why?

Now, here's how you can also get some feedback: If you are working on something, and would like the same feedback, please post your excerpt in the comments. Please post NO MORE THAN 3 -5 paragraphs, three if long, four or five if short. If there's more, I will only read the first 3 -5 paragraphs. This is partly for your own protection. This is a public site and I don't want anyone coming back later and saying someone "lifted" their whole chapter from my website. :) If you are a student from a particular class, a teacher-writer I met at NCTE, etc., please identify yourself as such. If not, let me know how you found me.

Okay, so, here's a really rough bit from my manuscript, but it will give you a sense of using dialogue tags to clarify and the action around the dialogue rather than the tags themselves to do the hard work, I hope.

I turn away from the window and head to the kitchen. At the entrance, I stand quietly for a minute, and watch Dad’s hunched figure. He’s reading the paper at the table.
“Kyle!” he says, looking up. “I was about to get going, but figured I’d wait to say good morning.”
“Thanks.” I nod at something, like I’m agreeing or indicating. But indicating what? Him? The paper? The world at large? 
Why is it so hard to connect with him? 
“Ah, coffee,” I say, walking fast to the fresh pot. I pour some, load it with cream and sugar, and sit down across from him.
            “I made you a fresh one, see? How are you doing this morning?” He raises his eyebrows funny at that second part, as if he’s insinuating something. The New York Post is open in his hands. Usually, he reads that only for the sports, but there haven’t been any sports in two days. He closes it and lays it on the table in front of him, his arms folded over it. Still, I can make out the words, “SPECIAL EDITION,”across the top, and a piece of the American flag.
            “Fine, good, why?” I sip at the hot liquid, feeling it course through my veins. “How about you?”
            He gets up. Now I can see the whole cover. It’s a photo of three firefighters atop a pile of rubble, raising the flag in the air.
            “Okay, considering. How’s the girl?” That eyebrow raise thing again. He turns to rinse his mug in the sink.
xox gae


  1. Nice! I like the tension of a teen not being able to communicate with Dad. I liked these characters immediately, but I'm not certain why exactly.
    Only thing that caught me up was wondering what hot liquid coursing through my veins felt like. I'm not sure I've felt that. Felt it go down into my stomach though.
    Love the 11th rule!

    Okay, here's a short bit of dialogue from my latest MG rough first draft:

    Lily shuffles toward me, her snowsuit making “sh sh sh sh” noises as she comes closer. “I wanted to come!”
    “I told you no.”
    “Bandit didn’t like being left neither.”
    “Not cool, Lily! Bandit hasn’t even been trained! What were you thinking, he could’ve been hurt—” I stop short when I see her face, her lip pulled down, her eyes red. “Aw, jeez. Fine! Get in the sled. Just hurry up!”
    She stops crying so fast, I know I’ve been played, but there’s no time to get mad.

    1. TerryLynn, I see that face too, lips and eyes telling it. I know exactly what that looks like. I want to know more. The last line with the crying stopping fast - that whole sentence works really well to tell me more. Nice!

  2. Lol, TerryLynn, I actually just stuck that coursing in this morning... as I said, rough! ;)

    As for your excerpt, GREAT example of letting the actions themselves do the trick! LOVE! "Aw, jeez, Fine! Get in the sled. Just hurry up!" We know EXACTLY how that is said, don't we. We can even here the exact tone. Thanks for chiming in.


  3. I agree with the above comment. The character would feel the burn/warmth on the back of the throat or even down the esophagus, not int he veins. You can;t feel anything in your veins except a pulse.

    The tags were great. Try to rephrase "Why is it so hard to connect with him?" It's a bit on the nose. Show the frustration without naming its source so directly.

  4. Good thoughts, David. The second exactly correct! So nice to have you here, too, chiming in with your expertise. <3

    1. Gae, I agree that the tags work well. I also love what's unsaid between the spoken words - the eyebrow raise, and the internal dialogue both work well for me. I'm hooked.

  5. “Time to get a move on, honey. You don’t want to miss the bus on the first day.”
    “Aw Mom, don’t worry. Remember? Cal and the guys are picking me up. That gives me a few extra minutes.” Luke could see the slight disapproval in her face as she headed over to Gramps.
    “Okay,” she relented. “But be careful, sweetie. You don’t really know those guys that well.”
    “Mom!” Luke returned, rolling his eyes. “These are my friends. We’re like soldiers together.”
    “Uh-huh. Soldiers. Riiiight.”
    “Oh Nancy, lighten up. Luke’ll be just fine.” Gramps reached out to rustle Luke’s hair, a gesture Luke had long outgrown. “Won’t you, buddy?”
    “You bet, Gramps.”
    “You guys,” mom sighed. “Thick as thieves. Now c’mon, Dad, take your pill.” She put the pill in his palm and handed him the water. Gramps tossed the pill in his mouth, took two big swallows, and passed the glass back to Luke’s mom.
    “Now open up and show me,” she said. Gramps opened his mouth and waggled his tongue. Satisfied, Luke’s mom walked back into the kitchen.
    As soon as she was out of sight, Gramps scooched his tongue around his mouth and then spit the pill back into his hand. Luke looked on wide-eyed as Gramps took the pill and pushed it into the soil of a potted plant on the end table. “Bleagh. I hate these things. Some days I just don’t feel like it, you know?”
    “How did you do that?” Luke whispered. “And shouldn’t you take it? Isn’t it important?”
    “Oh please. The doctors just like prescribing pills to make themselves feel like they’re helping me live longer. I usually take them like a good boy, but the make me feel woozy—not really myself. You gotta be yourself, right? A day off here or there won’t hurt.”
    “I guess… if you say so.” Luke looked towards the kitchen door, still unsure. He looked back to Gramps. “How did you do it?”
    “Do it?” Gramps looked confused. “Oh, hide the pill?” Gramps leaned in closer. “Just tucked it between my cheek and gum like chewin’ tobacco.” Then getting serious he added, “Hey, don’t tell your mom, all right, partner?”

    1. This works for me. I can hear the tone of Luke's reply when Gramps plays with his hair as he talks. I am right in this scene. Even the use of relented paints a picture of how Mom is feeling- and to me, it fits. I know some might disagree. I do like Gae's suggestion about restructuring that one sentence. Flows well.

  6. About the post above:

    I hope it's not too late. Perhaps you can drum up some SocialMedia support? ��

    I tried to keep most tags out and just use character actions....

  7. YAY! Voila! Perfection, David! Great dialogue work here. Maybe in this one place, I'd even shorten more, from, "Mom!” Luke returned, rolling his eyes. “These are my friends. We’re like soldiers together.” TO "Mom!” Luke rolled his eyes. “These are my friends. We’re like soldiers together.”

    But other than that, I think it's spot on! I also have a feeling Luke is going to do some hiding of some stuff between his cheek and gum in the near future. Oh, silly Gramps! ;)

  8. Okay, while I think about David's I'll chime in. Darn, it looked really short on the page. Slap me if it's too much. I know the rules here. Rough draft of a scene. I've been working hard to try to make my dialogue more realistic.

    “Miss St -” he stopped, adopting a less formal tone.
    “Kate. You really are set on going, aren't you?”
    She nodded, silent.
    “But - I mean - I had hoped… you've come to mean the world to me. In such a short time. We work well together, and -”

    “ I know. I feel the same way. We've made a great team, haven’t we?”
    She was trying to control emotions that raced through her: sadness, uncertainty, soaring affection for this dear sweet man.
    He looked down at his hands, clasped around one knee.
    “They wouldn't take me, you know.”
    “What? What do you mean?”
    “ I tried to enlist. They wouldn't have me. Some physical failing. Flat feet or something, weak lungs from the ‘flu. Both. I don’t know and I don’t really care. Except that I’m not fit to serve.”
    “Why ever did you try to enlist in the first place? They need teachers, too. The school needs you, Mr...” She stopped.
    “ Clifford.”
    He shook his head, defeat in his eyes.
    “I’m not indispensable. Just another English teacher. The school needs you, Kate.” His emphasis on ‘you’ caused her heart to squeeze painfully.
    “Your spirit has changed things around here; in just one year, you've shown us what determination looks like. And loyalty.”
    “What are you taking about? I’m nothing special. Just good old Kate, Burley born and raised. Nothing much to write home about, you know that.”
    “But don’t you see? You've not let anyone get you down, ever , even when things looked their worst. You didn't turn away from your family, even though their beliefs and yours part ways. And you’ve never apologized for who you are, or where you come from. Don’t start now, please don’t. Not after all you've stood for.”
    He stopped, as if fearing he’d said too much.

    1. I'm late to the party (how did I miss this?), but it's great to see this new dimension to Kate's story. This feels genuine and stomach-churny in a good way. One tiny thing because it is already so good. Is their relationship such that he would say "You mean the world to me"--it feels like a more tenuous moment, so maybe something like "I've come to depend on you." Or have they already laid their feelings on the table? I really like this direction--it's a new tension for Kate, and it feels true. So much anguish and hope and a mixed up jumble of feelings--yay.

    2. JaneS, thanks so much for that! Just what I was hoping for, adding dimension and real feelings that are confusing. I'll consider what you said about the- when of it too. This is their farewell before she leaves to go enlist and serve with the War Department, so big feelings are being communicated more than they might otherwise. Thanks for another affirmation of my Kate!

  9. Valerie, think you've done excellently here. Feels authentic to me and I can sense the longing in each of their "voices." Wonderful. I actually wouldn't mind a dialogue tag here, as I had to read twice to know whose sentence it was. At first i was thinking Clifford's, but I'm thinking Kate's tag might flow better. Of course, once you get to his next bit of dialogue about enlisting, you know, but I went back and reread before that:

    He looked down at his hands, clasped around one knee.
    “They wouldn't take me, you know.”
    “What? What do you mean?” Kate asked.

    Either way, excellent. Plus you get a gold star for always participating in FF and so wonderfully and thoughtfully chiming in on others' excerpts. <3

  10. Oh, point taken. In my first go at writing dialogue in this book, I had all the blah blah tags you shouldn't. Now each conversation is an exercise in how few tags I can put in, I sometimes think... but clarity of who is speaking is so important to the flow, I'll take note. OOOh, a gold star? I am honored. Really, thank you. This book would not get written without Friday Feedback. And I love seeing how others' work flows and grows differently from mine. So much learning!

  11. Gae, I love the piece you posted. There is so much going on underneath the surface, and I like the way that the characters are reaching toward each other without quite knowing how. You're never heavy-handed, even with the heavy stuff. Looking forward to seeing where this goes.