Use “said”, occasionally use “asked” or “answered/replied” but don’t use overblown attributions. For other ways of indicating who is the speaker, have the speaker use the other’s name (in a 2-person scene this indicates who must be speaking), emotional/contextual clues (one person is angry and the other isn’t, indicate anger for a speaker), use action (“she opened the door. “Well, hello.”). Use physical description (“Tilruy wore a red muscle shirt. “It’s cold in here.”) Use thought turning into dialogue (He thought about the right way to put it. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”).
Attribution paces, and allows for those thoughts, actions, emotions, to come through, as well as creating rhythm.
Dialogue important to the drama and forward movement of a story is set off by itself, and a new paragraph starts with a new speaker. But you can have a paragraph with more than one speaker when it’s more part of a scene and the mood and setting is the important part, not the action.
Hmm, I need to think about that, sometimes the back-and-forth IS the drama and it works better, to me, in one paragraph. I have to figure out if that’s ok or if that’s one of my mistakes.
Exercise: Highlight all the dialogue in one of your own stories. Next, find out how many methods of attribution you have used. Rememeber that attribution contributes more to a scene than telling who said what. Then consider how you have presented your dialogue. Would some lines of dialogue serve your story better inside a paragraph? Are the important lines presented in a dramatic way? Now rewrite the scene using the tools you have acquired in this exercise.
To learn to shap e a scene with the tools of dialogue palcement and attribution.
ok, let’s go back to Drowning.
“I’m bored,” said Kiley. “Let’s take the bus down to the wharf and throw cats in the harbor.”
“Why?” The wall had a gray scar where the remote hit.
I think this works. The dialogue is after the remote explodes (because Kiley threw it) and I think the statement is dramatic enough in itself. The attribution of Russ’s line is assumed and includes scene setting and presumably some of his shock at what just happened.
“They [cats] let you pick ’em up?” I was a little afraid of cats. My Aunt Ella had a cat and he hissed at me, sometimes scratched me, and wouldn’t let me pick him up for nothing.
“No, you don’t pick ’em up, stupid, you put food on the edge of the dock and then kick them in. Or push ’em with a stick if you can find one.” He danced over behind the couch gave me a little shove.
I like this too. It uses emotional cues and character setting for attribution on Russ’ line, and gives flavor to Kiley. And gives him some action, more violence, pushing Russ around.
“Hey, look,” said Kiley.
I like this, too, it’s almost a cue to the reader, look what’s going on here, it’s been kind of descriptive about two kids out goofing around doing nothing really, nothing bad certainly, and now it’s going to get dicey.
“They’re better than cats,” Kiley said.
“The bums. For throwing in the harbor. Cats, they claw at you, these guys don’t have claws. And they scream just as nice when you throw ’em in.” He headed for the guys.
“Kiley, what are you gonna do?”
I like this, too. Kiley is the only attribution in the first one because you know who else is speaking, I like that “they’re better” “what is” doesn’t really work grammatically, because Russ doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I like the action in the third line and the unatribbuted final line. There’s more to the scene but this will do.
The Shirt saw me standing right there and stuck his hand out and said, “Help.” He didn’t even yell, he just said it like he could’ve said, “Hi, kid, nice day, isn’t it” and he looked right at me like we were waiting for the bus together and making small talk.
I really worked on this, thought about it, I wanted The Shirt to be calm and Russ to be freaked, and the only way I could be sure was to have Russ think it. I’m ambivalent about it but as far as attribution goes it works.
“Dad,” I said.
Dad swept and mumbled, “Hmmmm?”
He stopped sweeping. “Too heavy?” He nodded at the box.
The box weighed about two pounds, max.
“No,” I said.
“Ok, good, take it out then,” Dad said, and went back to sweeping.
You know, I could probably put this all in one para, but I liked the idea of them being separate because Russ’ isolation is crucial here. First line uses a tag, second uses action, third uses assumption, fourth uses action, sixth uses tag – I think the tag is important there but I’m not sure why, it just felt right.Last line uses tag and action.
I think I’m too invested in Drowning to see flaws right now. I’m going back to Green.
Early in the story:
I met him a few days later while I was struggling with my discombobulated bicycle chain in my driveway. “Looks like you need more arm power than you’ve got, laddie.” I looked up. Jamie towered over me – not that he was really tall, he just seemed tall, though most people seemed tall to me – with hair that curled any way it pleased, and a smile that looked like a laugh holding its breath.
He held out his hand. “Jamie Ferro at your service.” I mumbled “Michael Porter” as I shook his hand. It was the first handshake of my life, if you don’t count relatives who thought it was cute to shake a kid’s hand.
He went to work on the bike, and the chain was in place in a few seconds. “Now, where might you be travelin’ to on this bright shiny machine?”
“The Museum of Science, their summer Enrichment Program.” Even as I said it, I realized how nerdy it sounded.
“Well, now that sounds impressive. Very impressive. Studious of you to undertake on a beautiful summer afternoon.” He gave a lazy wave as he walked away. “See ya, bra.” Wait, as he calling me a bra? It didn’t sound mean, though. With his accent — like Scottie from the old Star Trek reruns — it sounded fun. Though fun wasn’t something I knew a lot about.
Hm, I kinda like this, too. The first para, it isn’t totally obvious that Jamie is the speaker, I wonder if that should be fixed. It’s pretty obvious – I was struggling, reference to arm power, makes sense to me, no one ever called me on it. I like this intro to Jamie, Michael describes him and his initial reaction to him.
Second para, there’s that two-in-one-para thing because saying his name is mumbled, and it isn’t really speech, it’s more of an indicator.
third, uses action.
Fourth, assumes in 2 person scene.
Fifth, assumes, then action, and setting, and character.
Maybe I’m just too defensive.
That night at dinner I asked my parents if they knew anything about him. “I think there was some kind of problem with his father, but Lydia and I don’t really talk much,” said my mother.
“Is he foreign?” I asked. “He talks with some kind of accent.”
“Accent? No, he’s not foreign. His father’s in Colorado, so maybe he picked up some kind of accent out there.” Maybe, but it didn’t sound like Colorado to me.
First uses indirecte attribution, and a reference to speech instead of dialogue, then Mom speaks. I think this section works.
ok, I’ve gone through a few pages of “Green” and, dammit, I like the dialogue as is. So either I’m defensive or I can do this ok. No one’s ever complained about my dialogue. Or any technical aspect of my writing for that matter, it’s always the story itself that sucks. And I don’t know if this book is going to help that.