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Words to the Wise

There are as many kinds of dialogue in fiction as the sum total of stories, novels, and characters that exist. And really that shouldn't surprise us. Because what is dialogue, after all, but the speech that could only come from the mouth of one character in all of fiction, and from the mind of one writer?

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People

Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them


Bring Your Writing to Life Through Dialogue

I was surprised when a friend told me that, when she reads a novel, she skips much of the narrative and goes straight to the dialogue. She's not alone. Acquisitions editors in publishing houses do the same. In the best advice you'll find anywhere on how to improve your dialogue, Browne and King, authors of Self-editing for Fiction Writers, write: "What's the first thing acquisitions editors look for when they begin reading a fiction submission? Several editors we know have answered that question the same way: 'The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn't work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it's good, I start reading.'"

Strong dialogue can lift almost any story—including memoir, nonfiction, even opinion pieces—to new heights. But strong dialogue can easily be weakened by what Browne and King call "creaky mechanics." One of the most common ways writers kill even the best dialogue is by describing or explaining it with attributions like "she snarled, giggled, chided, declared, cried, mused, stated, muttered." Whew! These verbs can entangle your reader, drawing attention away from the dialogue and toward your technique. Your best bet is to replace them all with said. Said isn't read the way other verbs are read; it's more like punctuation: transparent, and therefore graceful. It leaves your reader free to concentrate on your dialogue.

Adverbs ending in ly that describe said do the same kind of damage: "I’m afraid it's not going very well," he said grimly. They, too, "catch the writer in the act of explaining dialogue—smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself." Browne and King would like you to think of it this way: "Every time you insert an explanation into dialogue, you're cheating your readers out of a little bit of one of your characters. Do it often enough, and none of your characters ever comes to life on the page."


Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Read chapter 5: "Dialogue Mechanics."

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