28

This is one of the tics I've noticed in my writing recently, and it's starting to bug me. Almost every single one of my paragraphs, particularly during dialogue sequences, starts with "The character did this". The main exceptions are when I use "'Quote', attribution, 'continuance'" instead.

Here's a brief example:

"I'll come visit you every now and again, if I'm not too busy," said Electron.

Colin smiled. "I'm sure the other patients will appreciate that as well," he said. "You been to the children's ward yet?"

"Not yet," said Electron. "I think I'll leave that for last. The kids won't want me to go, you know?"

Colin nodded. "You're a good man, Electron," he said. "I think we're gonna get along just fine. It's a pleasure to have you in my city."

Electron returned the mayor's smile. "It's a pleasure to be here," he said.

How do I get out of this habit? Or is this not worth worrying about?

  • 2
    It's definitely worth worrying about. But you're not doing badly. You've screenplayed your dialogue, now you need to identify the real actions (things relevant to the story or to character description). "Colin smiled" could be assumed by context, "Colin grinned" implies something extra. My recommendation is this: remove all the character expressions ("said Electron", "Colin smiled", "Colin nodded", etc) and read only the exchanges. If something seems to be missing (like a character trait, or an important identification of something) you correct it. If not leave it for now and re-read it later. – armatita Oct 31 '17 at 13:11
  • 7
    Pick a book you like, pick a page somewhere in the middle, and make notes on the structure of a couple hundred sentences. One of two things will happen. Either the techniques used by the author to avoid your habit will become apparent, or the author of a book you like is in that habit and wrote an admirable book anyways. – Eric Lippert Oct 31 '17 at 15:05
  • FWIW, personally I don't see any real problem with OP's style; IMO it's much more of a stylistic choice whether to write in a more narrative, movie-y style, or not - than of a stylistic necessity to do one or the other. If the readers like it - why bother? – vaxquis Dec 14 '17 at 17:21
  • I don't really worry about it. If you're being grammatically correct in dialog, you are doing it wrong. People never speak grammatically correct, so perfect diction for a character that doesn't typically care about perfect diction is unrealistic. Dialog is the point in a novel where you want to make your inner Grammar Nazi cry like it's VE Day and he was caught on the Eastern Front. – hszmv Jan 19 '18 at 20:31
36

This seems to be an increasingly common problem and my belief is that it results from the writer consciously or unconsciously seeing the movie in his head and trying to transfer it to the page. Thus they give what are essentially stage directions at every verse end.

To break this habit, you have to remember that a novel is not a movie. A movie is, in some sense at least, a complete experience. The viewer's major senses are saturated with sound and visual action. There is certainly some room for the viewer to fill in the gaps, but not nearly so much as there is in a novel. A novel works far more by suggestion than by saturation. Providing all the details of a scene that a movie can pack into a single shot would be tedious and exhausting in a novel where the reader cannot take them all in at a glance but must read every detail one at a time and gradually integrate them into a complete picture.

Novelists seldom go into that much detail, and when they do, it is done as scene setting, and the novel then relies on the reader's memory while the action unfolds in front of the scene that has been painted. (Indeed, the extent to which a novel relies on memory is perhaps the greatest thing that sets prose storytelling apart from movie storytelling.)

The big difference between movie and page is that a movie has both a background and a foreground. A novel only has a foreground. A movie can draw the reader's attention to one element of a complex scene. A novel calls the reader's attention to each word in turn. When you visualize a scene, you visualize background details, but if you describe them, they become foreground, not background, which scatters the focus that the reader should have in a scene. This is why most dialogue in novels is just dialogue, with no actions described at all. It keeps the focus on the dialogue.

But for the most part, the novelist never does rely on painting a complete scene. Instead, they rely on the use of telling details to draw images from the reader's own mind, or they dispense with the need to paint a scene at all and focus on other aspects of the human experience, dispensing with a painted backdrop altogether.

I don't want to go as far as some would and encourage you to drop descriptions altogether. That is going too far and description is an essential part of the novel. But description is done largely through suggestion and relies hugely on memory (which is why it is hard to lift a novel out of its cultural context). But resist the urge to describe every motion, to act out the scene in your head. The novel is not the right media for that kind of storytelling. Novels are, to a much greater extent than movies, a medium of ideas rather than raw experience and your focus should be on the ideas that your characters are discussing and acting upon, rather than on the details of their movements or the backdrop they move against.

  • 3
    Great discussion. The mantra for film is "show, don't tell." It means that, for that medium, voice-over is a crutch which always betrays the author's failure or inability to provide (as you say) "a complete experience." I've come to stop watching a movie when it degenerates to such a reliance. What I learned here is that novel writing is quite the opposite; in this case one wants (and/or strives) to create that voice in the readers' heads. Thanks for the insight. – Glenn Slayden Oct 31 '17 at 5:19
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    This is another very good point for me to remember. You're right, I do act the scenes out in my head like it's a movie; I didn't realize that was actually a detrimental approach. Thanks! – F1Krazy Oct 31 '17 at 12:50
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    @F1Krazy The big difference between movie and page is that a movie has both a background and a foreground. A novel only has a foreground. A movie can draw the reader's attention to one element of a complex scene. A novel calls the reader's attention to each word in turn. When you visualize a scene, you visualize background details, but if you describe them, they become foreground, not background, which scatters the focus that the reader should have in a scene. This is why most dialogue in novels is just dialogue, with no actions described at all. It keeps the focus on the dialogue. – user16226 Oct 31 '17 at 13:07
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    Alternatively, there's nothing wrong with writing screenplays (or stage plays), if it turns out that you just really like writing dialog-centered scenes. Maybe you're accidentally not writing a novel after all? – user27482 Oct 31 '17 at 18:22
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    @PeterCooperJr. Indeed. The difference is that you cannot fully produced a movie or a play by yourself, whereas you can fully produce a book all by yourself. I think this leads to a lot of people writing novels when it is really a movie that they have in their heads. – user16226 Oct 31 '17 at 18:34
11

You should try rotating several different ways to start a paragraph: none of them is bad, but overusing any of them is as bad as sticking with your current approach. Besides the "character did X" and "doing X, character did Y" structures already considered, you can:

  • Pose a question that occurred to the character
  • Describe the environment
  • Think like the character
  • Give some background

Better still, you can combine these. "That made sense. The fete wouldn't be until tomorrow afternoon, so he could deliver the cakes in the morning and still go to..." etc.

Oh, and dialogue can start a paragraph too, as you've noticed.

  • 1
    Some good approaches here. I'll try and bear these in mind, and make sure I throw in more variety. – F1Krazy Oct 30 '17 at 22:18
7

You can skip the "Colin smiled." line, and just imply it, using the tag.

"I'm sure the other patients will appreciate that as well," Colin said, pleased. "You been to the children's ward yet?"

Some of these actions can be left off, or expanded, or put into the dialogue.

Instead of Colin nodded (in agreement to Electron's "you know?") Colin could say

"There's that! xxxx

"I get that. xxx

"Makes sense! xxx

or some character-appropriate verbal acknowledgement.

I think the problem is you are moving the camera too much, or directing focus too much. In a two person conversation, tag lines are only needed every three or four lines, to help the reader keep track, but if Electron says something, then another person talks, it has to be Colin. If Colin says something, only Electron would reply.

You don't have to invent an action to inform the reader who is speaking; trust your reader to be imagining the scene. If you just want to break the text of their speech, just "Colin said." in the middle of it is enough.

If you want to slow down the "block of text", try to watch this scene in your head without the speech. If it is a still picture, perhaps you can find some way of making them have bodily movements, thoughts, perception problems (glare, lights, hearing), distractions, etc.

Even in this kind of conversation, you can add some conflict, even if it is minor: Colin is putting on his politician's face while hiding pain from stitches, and is wishing that this nice guy Electron would leave already, so he could stop making the effort. Or so he could call again for the damn water he asked for thirty minutes ago, or so he doesn't miss the entire first half of the football game.

  • 3
    That's probably another thing I need to stop doing. My characters nod and sigh and shrug far too often. – F1Krazy Oct 31 '17 at 12:52
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    I try to restrict that in my characters, they get a strict allowance of nods, shrugs and sighs! If I need a pause between utterances, I tend toward the internal state of characters, or at least my main character. John silently agreed with her, her words triggering faint images of his own father struggling with his own demons. Not exactly the same, but he could understand the tears she was trying to hold in check. – Amadeus Oct 31 '17 at 13:59
  • @F1Krazy Your comment reminded me of the scene in one of my absolute favorite movies of all time, Adaptation (2002), in which the Brian Cox character, a coach on novel writing, berates the struggling writer played by Nicholas Cage after he laments that he wants to write a book that's "like real life," where "nothing ever happens." ROFL. – Glenn Slayden Nov 1 '17 at 11:13
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    "Colin smiled" tells us what he actually did, and leaves it up to the reader to make inferences. By replacing this with "Colin said, pleased", the narrator is now telling the reader about Colin's feelings, which also means that the narrator needs to be able to infer Colin's feelings. That might be the right thing to do (as much as I try to "show, not tell", sometimes telling just is flat out so much easier than showing), especially in such simple cases; but it should be a conscious decision, not something done by rote. Especially if you don't write with a third person omniscient narrator. – a CVn Jan 18 '18 at 16:53
7

I would offer that repetition of wording is less important than making sure every word pushes the story forward. It's not that the words are repetitive, it's that they're not doing anything for the story. The words as you have them exist as instructional text to the reader about how to read a conversation between two people. People know how to do this instinctively. So, let it go. Let this be where the story comes alive.

First define the characters as having emotions and a particular individual presence. Let's make the mayor a total creep and Electron absolutely uncomfortable.

Have them interact physically, change their expressions. Importantly, use props to drive the story forward.

Then rewrite to impart those attributes without changing anything that was spoken:

Electron nervously offered, "I'll come visit you every now and again, if I'm not too busy."

The smile on Colin's face distorted. As if he wanted everyone else to hear, Colin used his pubic speaking voice. "I'm sure the other patients will appreciate that as well." The smile vanished and he whispered, "You been to the children's ward yet?"

Disgusted, having heard the rumors, Electron didn't want to answer. "Not yet, I think I'll leave that for last. The kids won't want me to go, you know?"

Colin put his hand on Electron's shoulder and squeezed. "You're a good man, Electron, I think we're gonna get along just fine. It's a pleasure to have you in my city."

Electron stared at the exit sign above the door. "It's a pleasure to be here," he said.

With just a bit of wording, Electron becomes a protagonist and Colin a threat. In the last line, a prop is used as a story device. Electron doesn't just return a smile, he's forced to lie, wanting more than anything else to just leave, despite saying it's a pleasure to be here.

  • 1
    Suddenly, in my mind Colin is a big beery-faced man with a gravely voice holding a lit cigar. – Todd Wilcox Oct 31 '17 at 23:48
  • What is a pubic speaking voice? Just curious. I don't think it belongs in a children's ward? – DPT Jan 19 '18 at 19:50
  • A public speaking voice, using intonation, vocabulary and bravado designed for a larger audience rather than a single person, as if he intended to be overheard, unable to stop working on his political eminence, even in a hospital. Since He asks if he's been to the children's ward yet, they are not in the children's ward, otherwise the question wouldn't make sense. So the conversation is not an issue. – Radio Jan 19 '18 at 20:14
3

I run into this problem often. My biggest help though, is to describe what the character is doing, and then name them at the end of the action.

Say this happened.

Thinking this over and scratching his forehead, Colin hesitated to answer.

"So?" Leaning forward in his seat, Electron impatiently awaited Colin's answer.

  • I just eliminated the element of adding the noun first, and replaced it with the action. – Aspen the Artist and Author Oct 30 '17 at 20:56
3

You might have to give up on a few words and re-arrange things. For example:

"It's a pleasure to be here," Electron replied with a smile.

You also can omit "X said" a lot of times. A new paragraph indicates a change in speaker, and when there are only two it can be clear. Once every three or four quotes you can clarify who is talking.

"I'll come visit you every now and again, if I'm not too busy," said Electron.

Colin smiled. "I'm sure the other patients will appreciate that as well. You been to the children's ward yet?"

"Not yet, I think I'll leave that for last. The kids won't want me to go, you know?"

"You're a good man, Electron," Colin replied, nodding. "I think we're gonna get along just fine. It's a pleasure to have you in my city."

"It's a pleasure to be here!"

Consider looking up synonyms for "said" and also sometimes replacing "said", like:

"I'm sure the other patients will appreciate that as well," Colin smiled.

In the last case, "smiled" takes the place of "said" and implies Colin was talking and smiling.

1

Honestly, I see nothing wrong with your example. It reads quite naturally to me, and feels much less intrusive than some of the alternatives suggested in other answers here.

It's possible, I suppose, that a longer excerpt written in the same style might eventually start to feel repetitive. From just the sample, though, I'm not getting that feeling. All it's doing (at least now that you've drawn my attention to it) is showing Colin as someone who tends to signal his feelings non-verbally. Which, you know, people often do. If all your characters are doing that all the time, that might be an issue, but if it's just some characters some of the time, I wouldn't worry too much.

It might be that you're simply looking at your own writing too closely, and failing to see the forest for the trees. One useful trick to return to (or at least approximate) the "new reader perspective" is simply to set your text aside for a while — a day, a week, a month, whatever works for you — and work on something else in the mean time. Once your brain has had time to forget the details of the text, pick it up and re-read it as if you were seeing it for the first time. You may find that the little things that seemed awkward or annoying before now read just fine, while you may also be able to spot other issues that you were previously blind to.

All that said, if you still find the repeated non-verbal reactions during dialogue distracting, you should consider just leaving them out. Don't replace them with anything — just drop them entirely if they're not doing anything for you.

For example, your paragraph:

Colin nodded. "You're a good man, Electron," he said. "I think we're gonna get along just fine. It's a pleasure to have you in my city."

could simply become:

"You're a good man, Electron," Colin said. "I think we're gonna get along just fine. It's a pleasure to have you in my city."

We don't really need to know that Colin nodded his head, since his spoken dialogue is already doing a decent job of conveying his implicit agreement. A bit terse, maybe, but perfectly readable.

Mind you, I'm not convinced that removing this particular nod is really an improvement, since having it there feels just fine to me. But if you wanted to drop it, you could. You certainly don't need to replace it with any kind of extra gerund or adverb or "said bookism", as some have suggested here. Not that there's anything wrong with those, either, when used where they belong. But they're not needed here, and would IMO be much more of a distraction than a simple "Colin nodded."

1

There are a number of good answers about writing the scene on here, but I feel that the meaning in the original question are getting lost. I believe the question is how to avoid so many "He says" "She said" "He said back" fillers.

In my opinion it is good to mix in other descriptive words such as "He says angrily." Or use phrases such as "She replied with a smile." I believe it accomplishes the same task without the noticeable repetition of "He said" Over and over"

As an example here is an excerpt from my work:

“Where’s my mother?” The newcomer demands and reaches inside his long coat, his hand emerging holding a pistol of his own.

“I know not what you are speaking of.” Kuto answers, fully drawing his own gun and pointing it at the stranger.

“Don’t be a fool! Grampa told me someone took them from the camps. You will surrender them to me, brother, one way or another.”

“You have mistaken me for another. “ He lies—he knows this man is after the two women and is likely trying to confuse him as if they were related. Now the two men are facing each other, pistols pointed at the other’s heads, circling slowly. They stay this way half a minute, neither talking, and neither shooting, until a third voice breaks the silence.

“GABRIEL!” Monica shouts as she runs out of house she had dove into when the chopper was still on approach. The young man turns and drops his gun to the dust. His face immediately softens and he runs to meet her as well. They embrace deep and long, parting only after neither can breathe.

“I was so worried Ma. Gramps told me what happened. Are you okay?” He stutters, worry clearly still clinging to his voice.

“I’ll tell you more later, but all you need to know now is I’m safe… well me and Natasha… thanks to this man here.” She says, gesturing to Kuto with her hand. He turns and looks the native in the eyes. “Thank you then, brother. I owe you more than I can repay.” He says.

“Aye. My family is killed by the same man that captured your mother and would not have been involved if not for their relations to your family. But you are welcome for what can be excused and for helping your mother.” Realization hit Gabriel when he looks past Kuto and sees the three fresh graves as well as the smoke still rising from the home.

“If it helps, I am now making it my personal mission to find this man that hurt my mother and bring him down.” Gabriel says.

“Tis my mission now too. To find and kill this thing—for he is no man—to avenge my people.” Kuto says. His normally bright honey eyes now harden with determination.

So you see. I do have some "He says" Over and over but they are broken up by some other descriptive phrases and actions accompanying the statement or reply.

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