guest post by Claudia Mills
Oh, that boring word said. We do need to have some way to know which character is speaking in a stretch of dialogue, but to hear said, said, said, said, said, said is almost unbearable.
The only thing worse, alas, is to switch out said for a bunch of “fancy” speech verbs. An occasional shouted, whispered, complained, retorted is a welcome relief, but a long string of hundred-dollar speech verbs calls attention to itself much more than plain old said ever did. Worst of all is modifying each said with an adverb: said sadly, said angrily, said wistfully.
Solution: introduce brief bits of action into dialogue. Letting us know what characters are doing as they speak not only identifies speakers, but places readers fully in a scene. Instead of talking heads, we have living, breathing, moving human beings.
For example, in my recent book about an aspiring seventh-grade writer, Write This Down, here are some instances where a speaker is identified simply by my showing what she is doing as she speaks:
“That isn’t funny.” Now Kylee’s distressed enough that she puts down her knitting.
Kylee shrugs. “Okay.” But she crinkles her forehead in a skeptical way.
One way to demonstrate this technique to your students is to create a short dialogue, written as in a play, just the words spoken. Here’s one I use when I teach:
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. How about you?”
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s my mom.”
“What about her?”
“I think she’s sick, like really sick.”
Have the students name the two characters. Now edit the dialogue (on the board) with each line tagged with, e.g., “John said” or Mary said.” Read it aloud so the students can hear how deadly this is. Next try replacing each said – every single one – with a fancy speech verb, or speech verb plus adverb. Read it aloud. Ouch!
Ah, but now let the students offer suggestions about where the dialogue should take place: in a shopping mall, at the pool, in the school cafeteria? Once a setting has been established, a few of the speech tags can replaced by brief bits of action, specific to that setting. Vary their placement by sometimes having action precede a line of speech and sometimes follow it.
“How are you?” John asked Mary, as they walked toward the pool.
“I’m fine,” Mary said. “How about you?”
“Just okay.” John fiddled with the towel draped over his shoulders.
Mary stared at him. “What’s the matter?”
After a long pause, John said, “It’s my mom.”
“What about her?” A kid on the high board dove into the water with a huge splash, but Mary didn’t turn to look.
“I think she’s sick, like really sick,” John whispered.
Don’t let dialogue be “all talk and no action.” Small bits of interspersed action make the talking real. Action makes talkers come alive.
Claudia Mills is the author of over 50 books for young readers, including How Oliver Olson Changed the World (an ALA Notable Book of the Year) and The Trouble with Ants (which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly), as well as the Franklin School Friends series of chapter books from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Claudia lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her family and her cat, Snickers. Visit her at www.claudiamillsauthor.com.