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Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Editing tips - LET’S TALK

‘Speech helps to define your story’s characters… The fact is that dialogue reveals character; it moves the story forward much faster than narrative, and can impart information more economically than several paragraphs of exposition. Direct speech dramatizes events, while indirect speech merely reports them. The spoken word engages the reader.’*

A great deal is made of the use of ‘he said’/’she said’ and the many alternatives. Truth is, there are times when none of them are necessary. Authors love their characters’ names and tend to over-use them at the drop of a speech. But that can become tedious for the reader.

When there are only two characters in the scene, rein in character names; and judge whether ‘he said’/’she said’ is required at all. The tone, context and choice of words should indicate who is speaking, particularly if there's verbal fencing going on.

Here’s an example from an early chapter in Blood of the Dragon Trees – and ‘said’ is only used once.


Story so far: Laura finds a broken ivory figurine on the floor and knows there’s an intruder. It's her POV; she guesses who it is, too.

Perhaps she should have felt threatened as Andrew Kirby stepped out from the bathroom. He was, after all, a virtual stranger. But she was remarkably calm.         

He was dressed in a pale green shirt and chinos. Laura pointed to his desert boots. ‘A few grains of soil gave you away, Mr Kirby.’

He shrugged. ‘Ironic, really. I’m into earth preservation and here it goes, giving me away!’

‘It’s no joking matter, you know.’ She was serious, despite his smile. ‘Breaking and entering – it’s a serious offence in Spain, too.’
He nodded sombrely. ‘Indeed it is. If the culprit is handed over to the authorities, of course.’
‘Have you any explanation for being here?’
‘Selling encyclopaedias, but couldn’t find the door?’
Laura shook her head.
‘Chasing my pet cat–’
‘No.’ She wondered if that stray was his, then shook her head.
‘Hopelessly in love with you?’
She felt the colour rise in her cheeks. ‘No, I don’t think so.’ She leaned back against the desk, fingering a broken fragment of ivory. ‘This piece would have been valuable to sell, I’m sure – if you hadn’t dropped it.’
His mouth gaped open. ‘A thief? You think I’m a common thief!’
‘Are there any other kind of thieves? Is a common thief somehow worse than a gentleman thief?’ She shook her head. ‘I would never have believed I’d be discussing semantics with a burglar!’
‘Now I’m a burglar!’
‘If the cap fits–’
He walked towards her.
She edged away.
He lifted his arms wide, palms open. ‘My intentions are honourable, Miss Reid.’
‘What? Towards me or–’ she said, holding out the ivory piece, ‘– towards poor Felipe’s broken fisherman?’
There was a strange intensity in his eyes, something she had not noticed before. For a moment she feared his presence, his musky nearness. But only for a moment.
He reached out to the ivory in her hand and she anticipated his touch.

- Blood of the Dragon Trees (p43)

* – Write a western in 30 days.


ChuckTyrell said...

Just wrote a story in the first person. In rereading and checking it, I realized the whole thing is basically dialogue; a dialogue between the narrator and the reader.

Completely agree with no attribution in dialogue. Spare is better in my opinion.

Richard Sutton said...

Excellent reminder, Nik. Nothing works as well as dialog, to grab the reader and pull 'em in, but it needs to be really well-crafted to be as effective as it can be. I always spend a lot of extra time editing my dialog passages before the editor even sees them!

Nik said...

Thanks for the feedback, Chuck and Richard. I agree, Chuck, first person is essentially dialogue between the narrator and the reader. But of course within that is the dialogue heard. As you say, less is more. That's the answer, Richard, self-edit, self-edit and self-edit.

Pete said...

My thoughts too; attribution reminds you that you are reading instead of immersing!

Nik said...

Yes, I agree, Pete, it pulls you out of the story. Strangely, 'he said' and 'she said' don't seem to have that much effect, they're almost invisible to the reader; but they're still over-used.