Emotive Dialogue

Cover of "Stranger in a Strange Land" Yesterday I recorded our latest podcast for Fanboys on Fiction, and during the conversation, Ryan McKinley brought up the devilish problem of using "he said/she said" in dialogue passages.  This made me think of a good way that we could remove these redundant story killers from our dialogue and in the process make that dialogue more emotive or full of emotion.

To help us understand this technique, I thought I would re-write a passage from one of my favorite books Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein so that it uses he said/she said.  Here we go:

The following excerpt is from Chapter 17 of the novel, starting near the first line of dialogue:

"Okay, boss," Miriam said.

"This is one for the 'Real Experiences' group," said Harshaw.  "Specify on the cover that I want the narrator to have a sexy contralto voice ---"

"Maybe I should try out for it," she said.

"Not that sexy," he said.  "Shut up.  Dig out that list of null surnames we got from the Census Bureau, pick one and put an innocent, mammalian first name with it, for the pen name."

Notice how the "he said/she said" breaks up the action?  Now here it is as Heinlein wrote it:

"Okay boss," Miriam acknowledged.

"This one is for the 'Real Experiences' group.  Specify on the cover shee that I want the narrator to have a sexy contralto voice---"

"Maybe I should try out for it."

"Not that sexy.  Shut up.  Dig out that list of null surnames we got from the Census Bureau, pick one and put an innocent, mammalian first name with it, for a pen name..."

The most notable difference is that Heinlein simply eliminates the "he said/she said" by not slowing down the action, namely by removing the author's markers for who is speaking all together.  Not only that, he gives the characters engaging and emotive dialogue that stands alone without the author's asides.  Think of "he said/she said" as the author butting in to tell the reader something that they already know.  The dialogue itself must be full of emotion and power, thereby selling the conversation to the reader.

Another thing to think about is that we cannot simply use other verbiage like "acknowledged", "stammered", "stuttered" or "nodded" (which work in a pinch), but the answer is to make the dialogue so engaging and real that we can hear the individual voices of the characters coming through the dialogue.  Again, the point is for the reader to "see" the characters not have us "tell" them about the characters.

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