Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

He said She said

by Jeffrey S Savage

First let me just say what a kick it was to hear everyone’s valentine stories. I don’t need to see another chick flick for six months. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming, which for me is my creative writing class on dialog.

1 The first thing to consider is voice. What person will you be writing your story in?

First Person – I walk, we walk
Second Person – You walk, you walk
Third Person – he

I woke with a gasp to absolute darkness. Where was I? What was happening? My heart pounded in my chest, harder than the first time I met Bill. Feeling like I was suffocating, I reached out for the switch on her nightstand lamp and twisted so viciously it felt as if I’d ripped half the skin off my fingers. The master bedroom at the end of the double-wide trailer remained pitch black.

You woke with a gasp to absolute darkness and felt an instant wave of terror. You felt like you were suffocating. With a shaking hand, you reached out for the switch on her nightstand lamp, twisting it viciously enough to raise blood blisters on the tips of your fingers. The master bedroom at the end of the double-wide trailer remained pitch black.

Mandy Osgood woke with a gasp to absolute darkness. The kind of darkness that seemed to have a physical presence. She felt like she was suffocating. She reached out for the switch on her nightstand lamp, twisting it viciously enough to raise blood blisters on the tips of her work-calloused fingers. The master bedroom at the end of the double-wide trailer remained pitch black.

Use first person when you want the narrator to be an active character in the story. First person is skin tight. It allows you to comment directly to the reader. “I’ll take a bacon cheeseburger over a guy every time. A cheeseburger never makes false promises.”

We’ll either like you and root for you, or we’ll find you annoying (or even worse boring) and put down the book. Generally first person can not see anything they don’t personally experience, but some authors are combining first and third—or even first second and third. First person can give your reader the closest relationship with your protagonist.

Use third person when you do not want the narrator to be an active character or not a character at all. Third person allows you to see things the character does not. For example, you could say, “The construction workers gave Mandy the kind of looks a starving wolf gave a yearly lamb, but their looks went right by her.” It also allows you to put a spin on things which the character might not normally put. “The woman stared at six-year-old Timmy with a maternal longing.”

Don’t use second person in fiction unless you really know what you are doing. Or if you are Harlan Coban, James Patterson, etc. FYI a more common tool these days is to combine first person and third person, I am trying this with my new Shandra book, where the story is first person from Shandra’s point of view with occasional third person glimpses into the serial killer’s head. I read a Coban book recently that used 1st, 2nd, and third. Probably won a bet with that.

2 Know your character. It is imperative to make sure each character has a different voice from any other character. Even minor characters who may not even merit a description need a voice.

Understand that they will use a different tone or “voice” in different situations. Where they are. Who they are talking to. What they are trying to accomplish. Consider how differently you talk when speaking to your kids, your boss, your bishop, or your best friend.

3 Avoid using too many descriptive tags—she hissed, he whined, it growled. If you feel you need to use a descriptive tag, consider whether an action or expression could accomplish the same thing. Instead of, “Don’t hurt me,” he begged. Try, He dropped to his knees and covered his head with his hands. “Please . . . don’t hurt me.”

Also be aware of what a person can and can’t do. “‘Get away from me,’ he waved” is impossible. "Die,” he gargled is extremely difficult.

3 For the same reason as above, avoid too many descriptive adverbs. “I don’t like you,” she said irritably. Show instead of telling. She pushed her half-eaten eggplant across the table, threw her silverware into the sink, and glared at him. “I really don’t like you.”

4 Be clear on who is speaking. Don’t be afraid of using “said.” But if you have only two characters see if you can use other means to show ownership of dialog. Such as:

Fred walked to the window. “Looks like rain.”

“Who cares,” she said.

“That’s exactly the problem with you.”

She folded her arms across her chest and puffed her cigarette. “I’ll keep it in mind.”In William

Noble’s book, “Shut Up!,” He Explained, he offers these tips:

"He/she said" is the basic modifier, and it should be used three quarters of the time any modifier is used.

A page of dialog should not go by without a couple of "he/she saids."

When in doubt, leave the "said" out—add nothing.

In dialog between two people, use "he/she said" with only one of the characters—nothing with the other.

5 Treat your dialog like a ping pong match. Don’t make everything a direct response.
Dialog like this is boring.

“Get up.”

“Why? I’m tired.”

“Because you have to go to work.”

“If you don’t go to work, you’ll get fired.”

I read a recent section of fantasy dialog that went like this:

“Wake up sleepy head.”

“What time is it?” She rolled over on her straw mat, peeked open one eye, saw that it was barely light out, and pulled her pillow over her face.

“You have to get up early today.” Something tugged at a strand of her long dark hair.

“Stop that,” she said, waving a hand in the air above her head.

“Okay,” the voice called. “You asked for it.” All at once, a sharp beak closed on the tip of her big toe.

“Ouch!” Kyja shouted. She sat up to find a teal-blue reptilian face staring at her from the foot of her bed. Pointed leathery ears wagged back and forth as a pair of bulbous yellow eyes blinked owlishly open and closed.

“Let go, Riph Raph!” She shouted trying to pull her foot away without losing her toe.

“’ot un’ill you ‘romise ‘o ge’ up,” the skyte said around a mouthful of foot. It wrapped its scaly tail about its glistening blue body and flapped its small iridescent wings.

“I can’t understand a word you’re saying.” Kyja pulled her foot again.

Notice how few of the lines are actually direct answers to the previous line.

7 Avoid heavy dialect or oddball spellings. For example, instead of “Ah don’ know whut yer takin about.” which is annoying to the reader, use word choice and placement such as: “Four of us was down to the Piggly Wiggly when this fool begins to shooting off his mouth.” You get the same effect, but without the annoyance factor for the reader.

8 Do use internal monologue.

“Are you doing anything Friday night? he asked” It was about as lousy a pick line as they came, but he wasn’t exactly Mr. Suave.

She shot him a quick glance, before taking a sip of her martini. “You don’t come here often do you?”

“Obviously not often enough.” That was better. He might get a date out of this after all.

9 Keep punctuation inside the quotes.“Kill him!”“Who left the ear wax on the counter?”

10 Misc

Single Quotes: Use single quotation marks to indicate a quote inside of a quote.

Place a character’s name or pronoun first when writing a speech tag.

Don’t open a paragraph with a speech tag.

11 Read your dialog out loud or better yet have someone else read it for you.


At 2/20/2007 2:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So who did leave the ear wax on the counter?


At 2/20/2007 9:37 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Jeff said:

Use third person when you do not want the narrator to be an active character or not a character at all. Third person allows you to see things the character does not. For example, you could say, “The construction workers gave Mandy the kind of looks a starving wolf gave a yearly lamb, but their looks went right by her.”

There are many different types of third person. It sounds like you're talking about third person omniscient here, where the narrator can enter any head he pleases and offer commentary. If you're writing third-person limited from Mandy's viewpoint, you can only share things that Mandy would see or think, so if she personally doesn't notice the construction workers, they'd get cut.

At 2/20/2007 10:56 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...


That's true in first person, but not in third. You can't go where the person is not, but you can definitely notice things (as the narrator) which they don't.

Let's take the scene. The sun slowly rose above the mountains until at last it peeked through Tanya's window. Groaning at the light, she pulled her pillow over her face.

(Tanya did not see the sun rise. She was asleep.)


In the busy town of hobbiton, horses neighed, vendors argued, men laughed and children cried. But Rob paid attention to none of that. He was locked in his study writing his next romantic thriller.

According to Card in his book, Characters and Viewpoints, “In first person you can only write what the narrator saw when he was there . . . In third-person narration, the narrator could go on observing even when Pete wasn't too alert."

At 2/20/2007 10:59 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

In fact one of the reasons Covenant wanted me to initially write Shandra in third is so I could make observations and comments as a writer which the character might not make.

At 2/20/2007 11:09 AM, Blogger FHL said...

Just wanted to applaud your mention of Harlan Coban - amazing works! I think I can actually remember reading the part where he used 2nd person. Was that the one where the main character had served time in prison? It really makes you, as a reader, step into the character's shoes.

At 2/20/2007 11:48 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Jeff, like I said, there are many kinds of third person. If you're writing in a tight third-person limited, then I think you increase reader-character identification when you limit yourself to what the viewpoint character can see and think. When you go out of that character's head to make observations that he/she wouldn't make, you're putting distance between the character and the reader.

As far as the sunset opening, yes, I think it's not uncommon for an author to begin by viewing events through a broad lens and then zeroing in to a tight third person and staying there. But you could just as easily start with Tanya's viewpoint and stay with Tanya's viewpoint without the need for an authorial observation. Ditto with Rob writing his romantic thriller. Why not just lock into Rob from line one and let the sounds of the town come through his viewpoint?

I realize there are differing opinions on this matter, so we may just have to agree to disagree. Personally, I feel that third-person limited is more powerful if the writer lets the reader live each scene through a viewpoint character.

However, I also think it depends on what kind of story an author wants to tell. A historical epic--yep, chances are you're going to have a narrator giving some info. A character-driven suspense novel--maybe it's more important to lock into viewpoint so the reader identifies most strongly with the character. I think the key is to know how viewpoint works and to choose the method that works best for the story you want to tell.

At 2/20/2007 1:02 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

I don't think we are disagreeing here. You are talking about what your personal preference is as a writer. I am talking about what can be done.

First person limits you to only what the main character can see, think, feel, deduce, etc. But, it also gives the reader the closest relationship with the protagonist.

There are lots of different ways to approach third person, but the author has much more leway here. Essentially the third person narrator CAN be an impartial observer. They can watch everything going on around the character we are focused on.

This is very helpful if the character is a six-year-old but you want the reader to understand things a six-year-old might not grasp. Or if you want to view the scene both close up and from a distance. This is very much like watching a movie.

If you want to get into different people's heads at the same time, you go omnipotent. If you want to get very tight while still remaining in third you can go tight third. But those choices are up to the author.

At 2/20/2007 3:17 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Jeff, I see what you're saying, and you're right. I just got twitchy when you made the statement that third person allows you to see things the character doesn't. This is true, but only in certain types of third person, and I wanted that clarification. Sorry to make such a mountain out of a molehill.

Great blog, by the way.


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