META: The Problem with Dialogue

chrisouteast at chrisouteast at
Mon Aug 11 01:05:23 PDT 2008

> You don't have that with prose; the words remain the same, and other
> than resorting to bad punctuation (!!!?) and adverbs (he said
> dismissively) there's no way to get those myriads of feelings across.

In a way, you do have that option with prose, by describing the body
language that accompanies the character's speech.  In these three
paragraphs the dialogue is the same, but I've tried to give a very
different impression of the character's thoughts on the matter by
changing the actions that go with it:

"Your brother called," she told him, arms folding tightly across her
chest.  Her knuckles whitened as she made a fist around the keys.

"Your brother called," she told him, smiling.  One hand rose
unconsciously to pat her hair, checking that it was neat.

"Your brother called," she told him, sneaking a glance in his
direction out of the corner of her eye.  She paused a moment longer
than usual before stepping through the door.

> A lot of writers try to solve this problem by giving their characters
> different verbal tics, and while some very great writers have done
> great things with that-- Dickens and Trollope, for example-- most of
> the time it feels like characterization is being replaced by a mass of
> tics that never really come together.

I've always thought of overdone verbal tics as a text equivalent of a
bad actor exaggeratedly mugging for the camera.  Kinda breaks you out
of your reading trance, doesn't it?  And some writers take it much too
far.  I never want to read another book where a character speaks in

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