Fiction File: Say What?

It’s Ty again from Fiction and Copy Decoded, and we’re up for another Fiction File.

Are the copywriters gone? They are? Okay.

I said at the end of the last File that I’d tell you about my favorite tool to boost characterization.

It’s not writing descriptions, or action scenes. And it’s not internal narrative.

It’s dialogue. And if it sounds like getting people talking would be simple, there can be some difficulties. The first one is proportion. When I first started out, an assignment of mine for Long Ridge had half a page of dialogue, without a break. That’s too much, for sure. I learned to balance out dialogue with other parts of a story. 

Difficulty number two that can strike involves issues about attribution (keeping track of who’s saying what). Start a new paragraph when someone else starts talking, which helps. And it helps to cut down on scenes like this:

“I heard you broke your arm,” Mel said.

“Sure did.”

“Man, that stinks.”

“You bet.”

Did you get lost? We can see Mel talking here, but we don’t know who he’s talking with, or even if they’re male or female. It’s also not clear whether the other speaker still has a broken arm now. We can’t tell who’s speaking when, without going back to count the lines of dialogue.

You want to go for smooth sailing. To have readers caught up in your story or book, not counting dialogue lines. A rule that works well for me is no more than three speaker changes without “he said” or “she said” to keep track.

Before Mel and his broken-armed pal visit again, I’d also like to mention beats–bits of action you can put in with dialogue to show what characters are thinking and feeling. Beats go a long way to help readers experience your story and figure things out for themselves. And while we’re helping readers figure things out, we can cut out adverbs with verbs (“he said nervously”). And try not to use words other than “said” (“What a funny joke,” he grunted).

Now for an improved version of Mel and Whoever It Was:

“I heard you broke your arm,” Mel said.

“Sure did.” Grant ran a hand through his blond beard.

“Man, that stinks.”

“You bet.” Grant tapped his cast as a wind blew down Third Street.

Much better. Now we can see a bit of the setting, some emotion from Grant, his blond beard, and more. We’d have to see more to tell if Grant’s nervous, impatient, or something else, but that’s part of what keeps readers reading.

And if you need practice on the dialogue thing, listen to people talk. On the street, in restaurants, the bank, wherever. You don’t have to write down exactly what people say, but you can if you want. And while you’re at it, watch how they act, to help with your beats. And be sure to cut out things like grunts, “umms,” “ahhs,” and other things that pop up, that won’t give your readers useful info. (Or maybe it would. It all depends on your character).

So get those characters talking, and see how far getting readers involved in your stories will take you.

Until next time,



About Ty Mall

Thanks for stopping by. I've almost always been interested in writing, among other things. Along with discovering pop culture, I've uncovered a lot about the craft over the past 10 years. And whether you're a fiction writer or email copywriter, I'm here to pass on what I've found out. And have a ton of fun in the process.
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One Response to Fiction File: Say What?

  1. Pingback: Fiction File: Need Character? Put a Spin on Description, Like This… | Fiction and Copy Decoded

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