I had an ah-ha moment at Elizabeth Hoyt's Writing Between the Lines workshop at 2008 RWA Nationals. She emphasized that a reader can only separate the identities of two speakers for four exchanges - only four lines - before needing a tag or beat to keep from getting lost. Think about that. We've all lost track of the speaker before and had to count "that's him, that's her, him, her, him, so this line is her." I shared this revelation with a friend who thought she was the only person who counted lines and blamed it on her dyslexia. Don't make your reader doubt her own brain! After four exchanges, tag or beat it. (I wish I could cue a little music but maybe I'll make it play in your head ... their words are really clear, so beat it, just beat it...)
What are tags and beats? Tags are "he said" or "so-and-so inquired." Like a scrap of paper dangling from a shirt, they identify the maker (or in this case, the speaker). "Said" scans neutrally and is often preferable to words like "screamed" and all its synonyms. "Said" won't jar the reader out of the flow the way yelled, muttered and spit do.
Beats are things that happen in a section of dialog that identify the speaker. A beat might include movement or it might be internal thought. Examples from Chapter 2 of Elizabeth Hoyt's free online novella The Ice Princess are "Isaac cleared his throat" and "Isaac turned to Lord Howling and raised his eyebrows." The reader knows who says the next line so Hoyt doesn't have to add "Isaac said." A bit more:
- Avoid the redundancy of using a tag and a beat such as "he said as he shut the door."
- Movement is preferable to a tag. It emphasizes and shows emotion.
- But - too much movement or internal thought chops up the dialog and distracts the reader. Hoyt suggests one short paragraph of internal thought per half page. One more thing to check in my edits.
- If you must convey explanation or backstory through dialog, create interesting movement around the speakers. Hoyt described the hero shaving his face during an otherwise mundane conversation. In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder called this principle "The Pope in the Pool" moment in screenwriting. You can tell the audience anything if their eyes are watching the Pope swim in a pool during the talking.
Terry McLaughlin shared a checklist of layers that turn dialog into an emotion-laden conversation worthy of publication:
- Hands (no wringing, but do you know where they are? touching chin? in pockets?)
- Props (twisting purse strap? earrings? stabbing food at a tense dinner?)
- Facial Expressions (I am frequently guilty of adding high speed eyebrow movements that I must later edit away, but some are good.)
- Body Language (leaning in, leaning out, turning toward, slumping, straightening?)
- Movements (sitting or standing? walking away and turning over shoulder to talk?)
He put the box down carefully and she felt an unfamiliar urge to pout. A package was more important? Then he leaned closer and cupped her cheek in one hand. "Thank you."Back to Me: Improved since Monday? Did you notice that I removed some of Wulf's pronouns and two repetitive lines of the exchange? I tried to make him more direct - he is a special forces soldier and immortal warrior, not a chatty bff. I added hands (she grips rail, holds palm up; he cradles her cheek) and a prop (the box - what's in it?). A question for you - does rolling eyes work when you read it on a page? His dimple shows he smiled. Should I end it with a period after dimple or does the "unexpected" phrase work?
"For what?" His palm was warm and calloused and she wanted to rub her face against it but they were standing in the middle of Macy's so she held still.
"For listening to me for once and staying safe. For going with Ivar."
Watching his lips move sent memories of their warmth shivering across her skin. She gripped the railing that separated them from the escalator well to stop from reaching for his head and pulling it down to her. Not here.
"I saw Ivar's rune and knew you were safe." His lips came closer as he leaned across the space. Even though his mouth filled her vision she could barely follow his words. "It took a day for me to reach Copenhagen, another before Mulla rigged my return."
"Wait --" she thrust her palm out to stop his advance. "Two days in Mulla's apartment and you didn't call?"
"I have this problem with telephones." He flashed that dimple, always so unexpected on her warrior.
She would not give in that easily. "Many men do. They still call."
"Figured I might as well make it here."
She rolled her eyes to no effect since he was staring at the box between their feet. Yeah, she already knew he had no sense of time passing. Who would after fifteen hundred years, really? "No friends on your flight, I hope?" She tried to keep her voice light but it would be a long time, if ever, before she could forget the chaos and fear of their flight to Copenhagen.
"Mulla crated and shipped me air cargo. Seemed like the easiest way to avoid a chatty seatmate."
I still need to up the emotion and tie it to the overall conclusion. This dialog feels hanging in space to me, even when I read it in its full context. Theresa is being remarkably cool - neither angry nor happy to see him - so either I have to develop a reason for that or I have to change her reaction.
Please tell me what you think! Anything that's not clear? That I should edit out? Any more to add? Friday I'll share the final version but until then keep writing.