Better Writing Editing Writing

He said, She said – when the words outside the speech marks aren’t working

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I’m currently slogging away at NaNoWriMo – the first time I’ve genuinely attempted it since my disastrous first attempt back in 2013 when I was just starting out on this writing journey. NaNoWriMo (or ‘Nano’) is great for getting words down on the page and keeping at bay the forces that typically slow a writer down in their tracks – like procrastination, worldbuilding development, research, and the voice of one’s ‘inner editor’ (you know, the one that stands over your shoulder, peering at your screen and muttering “I don’t think that’s the right word”, or “Maybe you should consider a semi-colon there instead”, or “that character is a little, I don’t know, pedestrian, don’t you think?”).

Sitting here in Week 2 of Nano, and I’m feeling pretty good about what I’ve written so far; I’m drafting the second book of a YA Dark Fantasy that I’ll self-publish (hopefully) next year under a pen name. But, I’ve started to notice something – something that my inner-editor is very displeased about. And that’s my dialogue.

Don’t get me wrong – the dialogue itself is good; full of character voice, snappy, on-point, relevant. But the tags… Ugh. It feels like there’s too many ‘he said’ ‘she said’ qualifiers; or worse, when trying to show emotion, too many action beats that focus on micro-changes of expression or posture – she smiled, he laughed, she nodded, he straightened.

At just over the midpoint, I’ve written close to 50,000 words on this story, so I am acutely aware of how many of these tags and beats I’ve already used. And when I go to type those dreaded words again, the writer inside me shudders and dies a little more.

But how do you change it up? How do you write a dialogue-heavy scene without falling back on these easy (if unattractive) crutches?

Image by Toni Cuenca via Unsplash

The Pope in the Pool

The Pope in the Pool narrative device is a well-established screenwriting rule – it’s the go-to example of how to make an expository scene (characters dumping a lot of info on the reader) interesting and charged with tension. The trope is found in Snyder’s screenwriting bible Save the Cat, and its source material is George Englund’s The Plot to Kill the Pope screenplay, where, to keep the audience’s attention through a lengthy exposition, the scene is set at the Vatican swimming pool and the exposition delivered while the Pope swims laps. The take-away is that when a script (or novel) has to cover exposition (the somewhat boring, but plot-essential pieces of information) you can distract your audience (or readers) with something visually interesting. If you’re not familiar with Englund’s work, you’re not alone – but there are plenty of other great and modern examples over on the Save the Cat page.

So, what does this have to do with fixing dialogue scenes? Turns out, the same rules apply. Unlike exposition, dialogue is inherently interesting – there’s a voyeuristic thrill in ‘overhearing’ a conversation that doesn’t involve us – but, if you’re finding your dialogue tags or action beats pressed up against the speech marks are dragging down the pace, killing the tension, or just creating an overbearing sense of banality and repetitiveness – put the talking characters in an interesting location or event, or have them partaking in an activity.

This was where my problem was – the dialogue scenes I was fretting over were scenes where it was just two characters talking in a standard room. The dialogue was interesting, but the scaffolding was as boring as the white paint of those hotel room walls. And I realised this when, while writing yet another dreaded dialogue scene, I had one of the characters bring in some pizza. Suddenly, there was no ‘he said,’ ‘she said’, but ‘he bit down into the cheesy crust, his fingertips turning greasy and shining under the lamp light’. Not great (it is Nano after all – where the aim is to write quick and dirty, and then fix it up later), but it is much better.

What about you? Where do you most often find your dialogue scenes taking place? And what are your go-to/overused/crutch dialogue tags that need to take a rest? Let me know in the comments!

Liked this? Want More?

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