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CONVERSATIONS IN SPACE

When writing dialogue, keep in mind that readers appreciate being able to "see" where the conversation is taking place. Conversations do not occur in a vacuum; the speakers are usually doing something else—ironing clothes, starting a car, arranging flowers—while they are speaking. Also, physical surroundings can influence what charac­ters say; a conversation held in a church might be a little more sub­dued than the same conversation held in a deli. To make a scene come alive, you must attend to the context of the conversation. In other words, most dialogue needs some descriptive interruption in order to make its full impact. Descriptive interruptions can take the form of a narrative break—a full-paragraph (or longer) description of a tent site in the middle of a conversation between two campers, for example—but more often these interruptions are brief and inter­mittent, taking the form of dialogue tags and gestural pauses.



Simple dialogue tags are the "he said/she said"s of a dialogue sequence:
"Henry," Elizabeth said. "Tell me more."
Or:
"The car is gone!" Elmore shouted.

Or:
"Not now," I told him. "I'll explain later."


Simple dialogue tags are for identifying the speaker or implying a pause. They do not offer any description.

Dialogue tags can be descriptive as well as functional, however. Descriptive dialogue tags are tags with modifiers or modifying phrases attached:


"Those are my flowers," he said, crossly.
Or:
"Let me get it," she said, reaching for the phone.
Or:
"Just who do you think you are?" I asked, looking up.
These tags offer more than speaker identification. They describe an action or a state of mind. As a general rule, though, don't use adverbs to describe the speaker's mood. Avoid the trap of "he said, cau­tiously" or "she said, flirtatiously"; caution and flirtatiousness should be implied by the dialogue:
"Wait a minute," he said. "Okay, now you can light the fuse." [words imply caution]
Or:
"Why, Ricky," she said. "I do believe you're flirting with me." [words imply flirtatiousness]
The occasional, well-placed adverb is probably okay. You find them in dialogue tags written by our best writers. But you don't find them often, which makes their impact that much stronger when they do occur.

Adverbs work best in dialogue tags when the state of mind is contrary to the speaker's words:


"I got all A's," he said, glumly.
Or:
"You wrecked my car!" she said, happily.
Or.
"Why, you little creep," she said, sweetly.
Modifying phrases ("he said, reaching for the phone"; "she said, look­ing up") added to a tag help advance the story or provide clues about the characters' motives:
"Emily, how nice to see you again," Abner said, clenching his fists.
Or:
"Here goes nothing," Mary said, raising the sledgehammer over her head.
In the first instance, Abner's clenched fists tell us something about his feelings toward Emily. In the second instance, Mary's raising of the sledgehammer moves the story's action along.

Gestural pauses are descriptive, full-sentence interruptions that enhance or replace dialogue tags. They are similar in function to descriptive dialogue tags in that they can reveal a character's motives and move the story forward.
"Henry," Elizabeth said. She pulled her chair up close. "Tell me more."
Or:
Elmore came tearing down the street. "The car is gone!"
Or:
"Not now," I told him. I slid into the booth and ordered a beer.
How important is adding description to dialogue in the form of tags and gestural pauses? Extremely. Tags and pauses can cast a conversa­tion in many different ways. The following conversation contains no description:
"Sally."

"I can't hear you."

"Come on, Sal, talk to me."

"I saw your mother this morning. She had some very inter­esting news about you."

"My mother's nuts, okay? She's off on one of her little trips to the moon. Everything that comes out of her mouth is a complete lie. It's not her fault, she can't help herself."

"Really? She seems to think she's helping you and Abby Ross plan your June wedding."

"Abby Ross? I don't even know Abby Ross. I've never even met Abby Ross. Abby Ross lives on the Foreside, for heaven's sake, what would she want with a schlup like me?"

"How long have you been seeing her?"

"Listen, I can show you the papers. I had her committed for six weeks last year. She's a pathological liar. You have to forgive them because they don't really understand all the dam­age they're doing."
This is direct dialogue that describes a man trying to weasel out of a tight situation. However, you can change the characters' personalities one way or another by adding description to the dialogue in the form of descriptive dialogue tags and gestural pauses:
Hank opened the screen door gingerly. "Sally."

She looked up from the flowers she was arranging. "I can't hear you," she said. She set her chin and went back to work. Dozens of roses lay in a heap at her elbow.

"Come on, Sal, talk to me."

She picked up a pair of shears and began to snip the stems. "I saw your mother this morning. She had some very interesting news about you."

"My mother's nuts, okay?" Hank said. He sidled to the far side of the kitchen, far from the sound of stems being snapped off. "She's off on one of her little trips to the moon. Everything that comes out of her mouth is a complete lie. It's not her fault, she can't help herself."

"Really?" Sally said, pointing the shears. "She seems to think she's helping you and Abby Ross plan your June wed­ding."

"Abby Ross? I don't even know Abby Ross. I've never even

met Abby Ross. Abby Ross lives on the Foreside, for heaven's sake, what would she want with a schlup like me?"

"How long have you been seeing her?" She held up the shears and began making little snips at the air. He moved a little farther, putting a table and a couple of chairs between them.

"Listen," he said. "I can show you the papers. I had her committed for six weeks last year. She's a pathological liar. You have to forgive them because they don't really understand all the damage they're doing."


No matter how we might have read the original dialogue, in this version we are compelled to view Sally as the one with the upper hand. She's the one with the scissors, and Hank "sidles" out of their reach. The heap of roses presents a vague impression of dead bodies, given the circumstances of her wielding the shears as a weapon. Hank shrinks from the sound of "stems being snapped off." Clearly he mistrusts his own safety in the presence of this angry woman. The dialogue becomes a cat-and-mouse game in which Hank is clearly the mouse. The description is what gives the dialogue sequence its comedic turn.

Different description choices, however, can quickly turn the mouse into a very menacing cat:


Hank burst into the kitchen and planted himself behind her. "Sally."

She looked into the sinkful of dishes. "I can't hear you."

"Come on, Sal," he said, yanking her arm. "Talk to me."

She waited a very long time, her eyes on the water, until he released her. He relaxed a little, retreated to the refrigerator to rummage for a beer. "I saw your mother this morning," she murmured. "She had some very interesting news about you."

He slammed the refrigerator door. "My mother's nuts, okay? She's off on one of her little trips to the moon. Everything that comes out of her mouth is a complete lie. It's not her fault, she can't help herself."

Sally turned, folded her arms as if steeling herself against his anger. "Really? She seems to think she's helping you and Abby Ross plan your June wedding."

Hank began to redden. "Abby Ross?" The long cords of his neck began to pulse. "I don't even know Abby Ross. I've never even met Abby Ross. Abby Ross lives on the Foreside, for heaven's sake, what would she want with a schlup like me?"

She let out a breath. "How long have you been seeing her?"

He advanced on her then, spots of sweat beginning to darken the front of his shirt. "Listen, I can show you the papers. I had her committed for six weeks last year. She's a pathological liar." She flattened herself against the sink as he lumbered over the slick linoleum. "You have to forgive them," he said, his voice dropping eerily. "They don't really understand all the damage they're doing."
In this version, the description surrounding the dialogue gives the scene a sinister twist, even though the dialogue is exactly the same. Notice how the descriptions control the pace of the scene, and how that pace implies danger. If you want to slow the pace of a dialogue se­quence, add descriptive interruptions. If you want to quicken the pace, use description sparingly or not at all. The first version of the preceding dialogue sequence reads at a fast, breezy clip that makes the scene feel almost lighthearted, and the last version reads slowly, with pauses implied by descriptive interruptions like "He advanced on her ..." or "She waited a very long time. ..." The result is two dramatically different scenes.



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