Notes from Say What? Mixing Spoken and Internal Dialogue by Hallie Ephron

Say What? Mixing Spoken and Internal Dialogue
Hallie Ephron
Willamette Writers Conference
WWCON11
  • Strong opinions, but you should never take what any one person says as gospel.
    • There are as many ways to write as there are authors
  • Please just just use “said” and “asked”. Reuse them. They are invisible to the reader. Don’t be creative.
  • “Matt”, she said, careful eyes on me, “is eighteen now.”
    • By putting the “careful eyes on me” where it is, it sets up the reader for what follows. It casts a shadow on the dialogue that follows.
    • “careful eyes on me” is the narrator giving information without telling, and gives us insight into the feelings of a character other than the point of view character.
  • em dash vs. ellipsis: em dash is changing the characters thought. the ellipsis is a pause in the characters speech, or trailed off if at the end of dialogue. If there’s an em dash at the end of dialogue, it means something that happened before the dialogue was finished.
    • Then you don’t have to say “he interrupted”, because the em dash told the reader.
  • Usually in a scene it is fun to be in the head of the character who is more off balance.
  • Don’t get in the head of a character who is not a main character.
  • Don’t use cliches like “she threw her hair back”, “her green eye flashed”.
  • Don’t bounce around in people’s heads. Some successful authors get away with it. But not first time writers. And while non-critical readers may not notice it, agents and editors and reviewers will.
  • Avoid redundancy, don’t explain
    • “I hate you,” I said. I was furious.
      • Show, don’t tell.
      • Don’t tell me twice the same thing.
    • “I hate you.” I just wanted him to go away and leave me alone.
      • Now we are excusing something different: she doesn’t hate him, she just said that.
  • Tags other than said and asked:
    • Dialogue
      • “Are you going to go home?”
      • I didn’t answer
      • “Are you going to go home?” she persisted.
    • Don’t do it. it’s redundant.
  • No adverbs with the word said.
    • Adverbs hung on words are tells.
  • Avoid “she saw”, “he saw”. It’s assumed. It distances the reader.
  • Sighing, shrugging, shaking your head. Characters do it, but it’s not the most interesting thing to read, so don’t overuse it.
  • Lots of dialogue is inflected as a question even if doesn’t contain question words.
    • “We’re having meatloaf for dinner again?”
  • You can use italics to give inflection. But a book that is full of italics is hard to read. 
    • You did that?
    • You did that?
    • You did that?
    • All different meanings.
  • If you have five characters in a setting, you need said and ask tags.
  • If you have two characters, you need it at the beginning and once in a while later in the dialogue.
  • Kim scratched her head. “I haven’t any idea what you mean.”
  • If you put the action and the dialogue on the same line, then you don’t need the tags.
  • If you put the action first, it will shadow the dialogue. Usually this is good.
  • Orient the reader first in a scene:
    • Never start a scene with disembodied dialogue, because you never want to confuse the reader. You pull them off the page... “Wait, who is that?”
  • Get rid of “he thought”, “he wondered”. If you have a main character, we should always be in their head.
  • When you have 2 or 3 or 4 characters in dialogue, only one has the viewpoint.
    • they can all have dialogue, actions, expressions.
    • but only one can have thoughts: viewpoint character.
    • so if someone thinks a character is lying, only the viewpoint character can make that explicit.
    • Conversely, the viewpoint character can’t tell you how they themselves look.
  • Example from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, starting with “Ooooh, child”:
    • http://books.google.com/books?id=XQm4JGjuX1gC&lpg=PT113&ots=sQQZUMPtGN&dq=midnight%20in%20the%20garden%20of%20good%20and%20evil%20driving%20a%20heap&pg=PT113#v=onepage&q&f=false
  • Second example from Midnight in Garden of Good and Evil, starting with “The thing I like best about squares”
    • http://books.google.com/books?id=XQm4JGjuX1gC&lpg=PT37&dq=midnight%20in%20the%20garden%20of%20good%20and%20evil%20the%20thing%20i%20like%20best%20about%20squares&pg=PT37#v=onepage&q&f=false
    • Examples of word choice and sentence structure. Pick the words that would be in that characters mouth.
  • Grammar is a powerful tool to convey dialect without using misspellings.
  • Foreign words and jargon:
    • Less is more.
    • You don’t need to translate Bon jour. 
    • You can put the foreign word in italics. (for clarity, so the reader knows it isn’t just mispelled)
    • You don’t need to translate when it is show in context. If visiting a sick character, and someone says something to them, you can guess that it’s “get better” or “how are you?”
  • Writing an unreliable narrator
    • example from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Starting with “I lifted my head off the grass”:
    • http://books.google.com/books?id=loC0vNA1a4IC&lpg=PA7&ots=eT8qNaCXkq&dq=The%20Curious%20Incident%20of%20the%20Dog%20why%20were%20you%20holding%20the%20dog&pg=PA7#v=onepage&q&f=false
    • Dialogue is intentionally unemotional and flat: “The dog is dead.”
    • Characters who have conflict don’t converse with each other, they converse across each other... orthagonal conversation.
      • He came home late. “What’s for dinner?”
      • “Where the hell were you?” she asked.
    • The “I said,”, “he said” tells us something about the character. It’s coming from a character who is obsessed with detail. It can also add edginess to the dialogue.
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