What follows are informal thoughts on the top-ten things I learned this semester. Caveat 1: I learned way more than ten things. (At least eleven or twelve.) I’m setting out to reveal the 10 most consistent mistakes I made and looking at a few outside sources to help clarify my explanation. I hope that the NC moderator (and my former advisor) will feel free to comment, correct or criticize any of the entries for future students. (I’m also sure that future students will be better-versed in these things, and less likely to make the same mistakes I did.) Caveat 2: I didn’t come from a literary background, so please don’t laugh too much if some of these seem woefully obvious.
All of these were consistently repeated problems for me this semester. One would think, at my age, that I could have corrected them more quickly. (Something about an old dog and new tricks. Or is it a blue dog and old ticks?…no matter.) Many of these kept reappearing, packet after packet. Alas, after much navel gazing and mental anguish, I have compiled a top ten list.
I will update the post as often as I can before departing for Slovenia. (In just over 2 weeks.)
10. Use attributed dialogue.
Doug beat this point into me again and again. He reminded me to consistently attribute my dialogue with specific tags. (He said, she said, etc.) I knew enough to avoid saying things like “He gasped,” or “She said sourly.” Dialogue should carry the tonality of what’s being spoken. But this idea of attribution was new to me, and Doug seethed over unattributed dialogue, which occurred in almost all of my stories. He referred to it as a “disembodied voice.” I had never been told to be so clear and consistent before, nor had I been so aware of how unattributed dialogue quickly creates abstraction and confusion for the reader.
Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, puts it this way:
“The format and style of dialogue, like punctuation, has as its goal to be invisible; and though there may be occasions when departing from the rules is justified by some special effect, it’s best to consider such occasions rare.” (135)
Burroway says keep it simple and, above all, clear, so the reader knows who is speaking at all times. Creating confusion usually serves no purpose. Burroway does say that if it’s clear who’s speaking, don’t use a dialogue tag. I recall Doug telling me (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that Gordon Lish once told him to use attributed tags on nearly each spoken line. Clearly, a consistent approach helps. I think of hearing stories read aloud, and how attributed dialogue helps clarify speech immensely when listening to it. But even on the page, I’ve certainly read a number of stories and novels where I literally have to go back and re-count lines of dialogue to figure out who’s speaking.
Burroway makes another interesting point: that dialogue tags should come in the middle of a spoken line, rather than at the beginning. Again, the impact of calling too much attention to something supposed to be invisible dictates this choice. For example, it should NOT be:
Doug said, “Rich, how could you be so stupid?”
It should be:
“Rich,” Doug said, “how could you be so stupid?”
The second example keeps the reader’s focus on Rich’s stupidity, and not on Doug’s voice.
If there was one, overarching message this semester, it was the importance of being clear. Clarity in writing only helps the story get told. Using disembodied voices and inconsistent dialogue tags leads to reader confusion and abstraction. As ponderous as it felt at times, writing the tags over and over, it certainly did clarify my speaking scenes.