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Of "Said" and Beyond:

Some more in-depth information on writing and formatting and generally handling dialogue.

Thanks to restriction@Transficsation for catching an error



Generally, when it comes to tagging dialogue, you're better off using "said" for the job. "Said" is fairly bland and is more or less invisible to the reader's eye, which keeps it from distracting the reader from the dialogue around it. At the risk of punning, dialogue should speak for itself rather than having to be propped up by fancy tags.

(Note: 'asked' is another fairly bland word that can also be used with some frequency; though some hold that having a question mark in dialogue removes the need to use the word 'asked' since asking is implied by the question mark being there.)

'Course, that being said, there can be a risk to using "said" too much. For example:

"I suppose given my eminent godhood, these primitives should really be beneath my attention. Ah, still, no score is too small to settle, I always say --" said Megatron
"You would turn the full fury of this mighty warship on a lone anthropoid?! Tell me, Megatron: where's the honor in that?" said Dinobot II.
"You dare use the H-word to me?" said Megatron
"I -- I... I apologize. I merely felt our power should be conserved for the larger battle," said Dinobot II.
"Duly noted...and ignored," said Megatron.
(Beast Wars: Nemesis, part 2)

Boring, ain't it? It's not the dialogue itself that's dull so much as it is the tagging. It’s all said, said, said, yadda-yadda-yadda. There’s no variety to engage my interest as a reader. In the cartoon that it's quoted from, I've got the advantage of being able to see the characters move, to watch their facial expressions change and listen to the emotion and nuance that the voice actors bring to the scene. In fiction, I’m relying on the voices in my head (or in my readers’ heads) to get the same punch across.

What we're gong to look at are a few ways to help give dialogue more punch and verve by alternating the ways in which the dialogue is tagged and formatted.

Burying Dialogue Tags:

Generally, dialogue tags go at the end of a sentence. Earlier, we looked at how to format dialogue when you put the tag in the middle of the sentence. Mr. Chiarella refers to this as burying the dialogue tag. The best way to do this is to find a moment in the sentence where there is a natural pause. And the easiest way to do that is to read the sentence aloud and take mental note of where you pause for breath. Or to look for commas and periods, particularly in cases where you've got someone speaking more than one sentence.

Example of a single sentence being split: "Well, well,” Springer said. “Commander Modesty's here!" (Springer speaking about Sky Lynx during Call of the Primitives)

Example of a single sentence being split (alternate formatting): "You're either lying," Megatron said, "or you're stupid!" (Triple Takeover) Note the use of a second comma after 'said.'

Example: Someone speaking multiple sentences: "Once Decepticons nearly held the quadrant through terror,” Cyclonus said. “Now we scrap like slargs over a few energon cubes. Is this how you honor the memory of Galvatron? Is this the fate of the mighty Decepticon empire?" (Five Faces of Darkness)

Remember that changing the position of the dialogue tag can change the emphasis and potentially the tone of the sentence. For example:

“All we need now is a little energon,” Prime said. “And a lot of luck.” (Transformers: the Movie)

“All we need now,” Prime said, "is a little energon and a lot of luck.”

Keep in mind though, that there are some placements that just don‘t work -- unless you‘re writing for Captain Kirk:

“All,” Prime said. “We need now is a little energon and a lot of luck.”

When in doubt, fiddle with the placement of your dialogue tags until you find the formulation that works well for you.

Descriptive Tags -- are words other than 'said' used for a dialogue tag. Some examples are: barked, bellowed, chortled, shouted, screamed, snickered, gasped, jeered, hooted, trumpeted, pronounced, etc.

Most writing books that I've read over the years caution against using descriptive tags mainly because writers in general and new writers in particular have a tendency to overuse them, misuse them and rely on them to give their dialogue punch. New writers in particular have a tendency to try and be fancy when they don't really need to be. Descriptive tags can be like violet eyes on a Mary Sue -- not nearly as exotic or interesting as the writer thinks they are.

That said, there are times when descriptive tags can be useful. They're best used at times when you want to convey an emotion without having to pause for additional narrative. The descriptive tags serve as a kind of shorthand to keep the dialogue flowing. For example:

"Did we have to detonate three-quarters of the ship?" Arcee asked.
"Seeing as how the Decepticons would've detonated four-quarters, I think it was a pretty good choice!" Springer said.
(Transformers: the Movie)

Or, you can try combining a couple elements:

"Did we have to detonate three-quarters of the ship?" Arcee asked.
"Seeing as how the Decepticons would've detonated four-quarters, I think it was a pretty good choice!" Springer said.


Again, descriptive tags can vary the tone of what’s being said -- just like varying the position of the dialogue tag can. Be careful to pick a word that fits the tone you're looking for; otherwise, the results can be confusing or (unintentionally) humorous.

Examples:

"Seeing as how the Decepticons would've detonated four-quarters,” Springer sneezed. “I think it was a pretty good choice!"
"Seeing as how the Decepticons would've detonated four-quarters,” Springer wheezed. “I think it was a pretty good choice!"
"Seeing as how the Decepticons would've detonated four-quarters,” Springer yelled. “I think it was a pretty good choice!"
"Seeing as how the Decepticons would've detonated four-quarters,” Springer snapped. “I think it was a pretty good choice!"
"Seeing as how the Decepticons would've detonated four-quarters,” Springer twittered. “I think it was a pretty good choice!"


Of these five examples, I'd pick the third and fourth sentences as the best. The others are intentionally ridiculous to show how the wrong word choice can affect your story's tone. As a rule of thumb, if you're not sure if your word choice will work (or you don’t know what the word means) use "said." Plain Jane it may be, but it serves the purpose.

Adverbs:

Adverbs are words that emphasize a verb, adjective or other adverb. In the sentence "Prowl walked slowly" slowly is an adverb.

In dialogue, adverbs are generally attached to the end of a dialogue tag as a way to give the reader an idea of how something is being said.

Example:

"I suppose given my eminent godhood, these primitives should really be beneath my attention. Ah, still, no score is too small to settle, I always say --" Megatron said, thoughtfully.
"You would turn the full fury of this mighty warship on a lone anthropoid?! Tell me, Megatron: where's the honor in that?" Dinobot II said, questioningly.
"You dare use the H-word to me?" Megatron said, angrily.
"I -- I... I apologize. I merely felt our power should be conserved for the larger battle." Dinobot II said, nervously.
"Duly noted...and ignored,” said Megatron, dismissively.
(Beast Wars: Nemesis, part 2)

The problem with using adverbs like this is that they can make dialogue sound contrived. In some cases, using adverbs is redundant ("I know,' she said, knowingly). Using adverbs can also be inadvertently humorous. Or deliberately humorous. There is a type of joke called a Tom Swifty where the idea is to have what Tom says relate to the dialogue tag used:

"Fire!" yelled Tom alarmingly.

Tom Chiarella advises against using adverbs at all in dialogue though he also says that if you do use adverbs, be careful to use them sparingly and carefully.

Present Participles:

The present participle form of a verb is created by adding -ing to the end. Thus, the present participle form of “run” is “running.” In dialogue, a present participle form can be tacked onto a dialogue tag to give a sense of action. For example:

"I suppose given my eminent godhood, these primitives should really be beneath my attention. Ah, still, no score is too small to settle, I always say --" said Megatron, rubbing his chin.
"You would turn the full fury of this mighty warship on a lone anthropoid?! Tell me, Megatron: where's the honor in that?" said Dinobot II, pacing the floor.
"You dare use the H-word to me?" said Megatron, turning to glare at Dinobot.
"I -- I... I apologize. I merely felt our power should be conserved for the larger battle," said Dinobot II, looking down at the floor.
"Duly noted...and ignored," said Megatron, raising his cannon and firing.
(Beast Wars: Nemesis, part 2)

As with adverbs, Mr. Chiarella advises against using participles. Or at least against using them excessively as he says they can diffuse the flow of the dialogue. As a rule of thumb, I would suggest using present participles as a shorthand way to get action across when you're trying to keep the scene moving.

Narrative Tags:

Some writing books I've read recommend avoiding any sort of dialogue tag at all, whether it's "he said" or "she gibbered." Instead, they recommend tagging your dialogue by using narrative tags, which describe the actions of the characters as opposed to the usual “name said“ construction of a dialogue tag. The reader not only still knows who's speaking, but also has an idea of what's going on in the story.

Let's go back to the first example and see how it works with no dialogue or descriptive tags at all:

"I suppose given my eminent godhood, these primitives should really be beneath my attention. Ah, still, no score is too small to settle, I always say --" Megatron walked toward the firing controls.
"You would turn the full fury of this mighty warship on a lone anthropoid?! Tell me, Megatron: where's the honor in that?" Dinobot II moved over, putting a hand on Megatron’s arm.
"You dare use the H-word to me?" Megatron stared at Dinobot II, his optics a mix of amusement and contempt.
"I -- I... I apologize. I merely felt our power should be conserved for the larger battle." Dinobot II took a step back, his hands clenching in poorly concealed anger.
"Duly noted...and ignored," Megatron pressed the firing mechanism.
(Beast Wars: Nemesis, part 2)

Now, compare this to the examples above. There's a lot more action in this example and we've got a better sense of the scene (though any resemblance between the tags I wrote and the actual actions in the show is pretty much coincidental). Not only do we know who's speaking, we know what's going on. The dialogue is a natural consequence of the action -- the reader has more of a sense of watching the action going on, rather than reading abou tit -- which is one of the advantages of narrative tags.

Narrative tags are best when you want to set a scene and there can be somewhat of a pause between statements.

Last Word On Tagging: You’re probably best off if you use a variety of tags in your stories, depending on the needs of the scene. The shorter tags are good for quick, fast moving scenes, such as a fight scene or any other scene where emotions are tense. Longer narrative tags are good for scenes where things are more laidback, such as the after action report on the fight.

Special Subjects:

Dialect: This is really more of an aside, since dialect isn't related to formatting or tagging dialogue -- except in a really general sense.

I mention dialect largely because it can be very problematic for writers. I'm sure there's a better, more linguistically correct definition I could use, but for the purposes of this article, dialect is how people sound. Among other things, dialect is affected by where you're from as well as your education, social class and age.

Mark Twain, in his essay entitled Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, had this to say about dialect:

"They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar, Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel in the end of it."

Or, to put it in modern terms: dialect (and dialogue) should reflect the character’s speech consistently throughout the story. Perceptor shouldn't go from educated, slightly prissy scientist who uses five dollar words to "Yo, yo, Dawg, what up!?" anymore than Brawl should look to his fellow Combaticons and say "Indeed, gentlemen, shall we retire to the study for brandy and cigars?"

Handled well, dialect can help you establish characterization and help flavor your dialect. Handled poorly, dialect can make your story incomprehensible and unintentionally laughable to your audience.

Many writers, not all of them beginners, attempt to spell out dialect exactly the way it sounds. Which can lead to constructions like this:

"Shee-oot, shugabawt, yew are jist ahbayout th' pritties' thang Ah evah diyud see!"

Now, for a few sentences here or there or throughout a fic and in small doses, this isn't necessarily the end of the world -- though my spellchecker is giving me a really hurtful look at the moment. But in a longer work, there's the very good chance you'll lose readers who just don't want to work that hard to understand what's being said.

Not to mention, there's also the chance you might offend a reader. I'm not a big one for being too fretful about offending people, since just about anything you write can manage to piss someone off somehow. But I am very much in favor of writing in a way that makes people want to keep reading and then come back and read more. All about the praise, I am. Most writers are.

As a general rule of thumb, never try to literally transcribe dialect. It's confusing, it's awkward and generally, it's inaccurate. Unless you're a linguist and even then, you're better off not doing it unless you're also a very talented writer. And even then, you really, really don't need to.

Instead of misspelling words, you can more easily represent dialect by word choice. This helps get across the tone of what's being said without compromising readability.

"Shoot, sugarbot, you are just about the prettiest thing I ever did see!" I'm willing to bet most people who read this line have a Southern accent -- and quite possibly a specific character -- in mind.

Word choice represents characterization. Read the following examples and think of the types of characters that come to mind:

"Mornin'," he said. "Sleep well?"
"Good morning," she said. "Did you have a good night's sleep?"
"Hey, sleepyfeet, about time you crawled out of bed." she said.

On Dropping 'G's and Apostrophes: Again, going back to the writing advice I've read in my time, most sources seem to recommend that you not drop 'g's or replace letters with apostrophes in writing dialogue. Generally, this is for the same reason that you're not supposed to write out dialect: it can end up being overdone and be confusing to the reader. But, in moderation, it works because it helps get the idea of how words are being said across.

"I was thinkin', maybe we should go down to th' store for some milk?" gives you a (slightly) different mental picture of the speaker than "I was thinking, maybe we should go down to the store for some milk."

If you're going to drop 'g's or use apostrophes or words like gonna, coulda/shoulda/woulda, dunno, or mebbe, use them sparingly and carefully and consistently. Keep in mind who is talking and how they talk.

Characteristic Speech: In Transformers, a lot of characters have characteristic speech patterns. Perceptor talks like a college professor who swallowed a dictionary, Grimlock and the Dinobots speak broken English, Shrapnel repeats the last word of every sentence, Seaspray gurgles when he talks and Warpath peppers his speech with sound effects -- just to name a few. Like dialect, these characteristic speech patterns can be handled well or they can render an otherwise decent story incomprehensible. The key, as with dialect, is to exercise restraint.

For example, Blurr talks very, very fast. Oftentimes, people try to represent this on the page by runningeverysinglewordBlurrsaystogethertoshowthatheistalkingveryveryveryveryfastOMG! In short doses, this isn't too bad. "CanwegoRodimuscanwecanwe?" isn't the end of the world. But for long stories and/or for long speeches by Blurr, we're talking serious eye-strain for the reader. Or, more likely, the reader skipping over what Blurr says or simply hitting the back button and avoiding your story completely.

A better way to indicate Blurr's characteristic speech is to use narrative tags to show what Blurr's doing. If you watch Blurr in the cartoon, he is almost constantly moving when he's talking, to the point that he seems blurred (hence the name). For example:

"Can we go Rodimus?" Blurr seemed to shimmer, like heat waves on a highway, as he danced from foot to foot in front of Rodimus. "Please? Can we? Can we? Can we?"

Characteristic speech is there to help characterize a character, not as a substitute for the character.

Foreign languages: Fall into the same category as dialect; use them carefully and try to make their meanings clear from context. Do NOT translate a word by putting it in parentheses after you write it.

"Domo arigato," she said. ('thank you') is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, it violates suspension of disbelief by calling the reader's attention to the fact they're reading a story and secondly it's lazy writing. If you *must* translate within dialogue find a way to do it within the context of what's being said.

"Domo arigato," she said. "Thank you, thank you so much."

As a rule of thumb for foreign languages: when learning another language, people tend to learn the basic words first: yes, no, sir, ma'am, please, thank you. Try to avoid the movie/TV cliché that all Spanish-speaking individuals who've learned English somehow didn't learn the words for 'sir' and ‘yes.' Save foreign words for special occasions and/or things that don't translate well into English. The Japanese word giri for example; giri at it's most basic means "to serve ones superiors with a self sacrificing devotion" or the German word schadenfreude, which is “a malicious satisfaction obtained from the misfortunes of others.”

Here’s another example of how to introduce a foreign word without resorting to parentheses -- or even in-dialogue translation:

"Once Decepticons nearly held the quadrant through terror,” Cyclonus said. “Now we scrap like slargs over a few energon cubes. Is this how you honor the memory of Galvatron? Is this the fate of the mighty Decepticon empire?" (Five Faces of Darkness)

“Slargs” is technically speaking foreign word, albeit a fictional one. We have no idea what it means, but we know from the context that Cyclonus is likely talking about some sort of animal that fights over food and that this is not something that Decepticons should seek to emulate.

(Normally, you would indicate a foreign word with italics; since, in this case the entire paragraph is in italics, the word is not italicized to set it off.)

Slang and Jargon: Slang and jargon should also be used with care; treat them as foreign languages (though don't italicize the words) and make sure that their meaning is clear from the context of the story whenever possible.

"Fear my leet!" Chip said to Prime.
"Excuse me?"
"My skills! My haxxoring abilities," Chip said.
The look of incomprehension deepened on Prime's face. Chip grinned. "My ability to hack into computers, Optimus," he said.


Other Types of Dialogue:

Usually, when you’re writing dialogue, you’re writing about people talking directly to each other in a face to face situation. With Transformers, you have the opportunity to have characters who are also able to use an internal radio system to communicate with each other. And, if you’re writing about Mindwipe or Soundwave, you’ve got characters who have canonical psychic abilities as well. So, how do you format their dialogue?

As a rule of thumb, I suggest formatting it the same way you would as if the characters were standing face to face and substitute ‘radioed’ for ‘said’ or ‘asked’.

"Swindle, report," Onslaught said over his internal radio. -- can be clunky, but gets the idea across.

"Swindle, report," Onslaught radioed. -- is a lot more succinct.

In an extended radio conversation, you don’t need to mention that the radio is being used every time you tag the dialogue. Once or twice should be enough to get the idea across to your readers. Ditto for psychic communication.

You can also use other marks, such as slash marks (//) or (\\), square brackets ([]), or other special characters to indicate non-vocal communication -- though be aware that angled brackets will screw up formatting if you're posting in .html format and square brackets may screw things up on ezboards. A word of advice (that you can probably see coming): be consistent in what you use and don't go overboard. I've seen a lot of fics where the author's notes read like this: *This* means thoughts, &this& means psychic communication, #this# means radio communication, "this" means people are talking and @this@ means I've got way too much free time on my hands. When it comes down to it, simple is best because simple is less distracting to your reader.

Lastly and Most Importantly:

In all my years of reading various books, websites, essays and articles on writing, I've learned that there's really only one solid and set rule of writing: If it works, it's good. There are very few rules of writing that cannot be bent, broken or twisted into a pretzel so long as the writer is capable of telling a good and engaging story. Readers will forgive a world of sins, in dialogue, characterization, plotting and world building as long as they are entertained.

So, if you take only one thing away from this article, take away this last one: If it works, it's good.

Sources:
Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella. Story Press: Cincinnati, OH, 1998.
Giri by Namiko Abe http://japanese.about.com/library/weekly/aa072197.htm
Schadenfreude http://dictionary.reference.com/wordoftheday/archive/2000/05/10.html
Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses by Mark Twain http://users.telerama.com/~joseph/cooper/cooper.html -- This is one of my favorite essays on literary criticism. Twain goes after Cooper like a bulldog and doesn't let go. The essay includes Twain's 19 rules of writing and how Cooper violated them. Definitely worth a read.
Transformers Quotes: from Rob Power’s site: http://www.builtstlouis.net/tf/index.html#quotes

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