Dialogue is notoriously difficult to make realistic. Even after a few years of writing tonnes of the stuff, I am still capable of ruining a perfectly good story. If you're jealous of that ability, here's how you can do it too...
The mistakes you might like to try when writing speech include:
- Being afraid of it.
- Not being realistic.
- Being too realistic.
- Attributing or "tagging" inappropriately.
The first three of these I'll tackle some other time, because by far the easiest way for the beginner to overwrite is the fourth one. It's also one way that editors and agents separate amateurs from professionals (and potential professionals!)
Attribution/tagging is how a reader knows who's speaking. Some writers, like Stephanie Meyer, are great role-models for over-tagging dialogue. They can never write 'he said' when he can exclaim, whisper or expound instead. Yup, they know their synonyms and they are not afraid to use them. I heard a beautiful pastiche of Meyer on the radio once. It contained gems such as:
"What are you doing here?" she questioningly questioned.
In most cases tagging isn't necessary - a reader should be able to tell who's talking. But in those places where you do need to attribute speech to make it clearer, you can really go to town. In almost all circumstances the words 'said' or 'asked' will do just fine. But there's no need for the aspiring overwriter to stop there. You can allege, howl, wail, screech or whimper; yelp, affirm or bawl. Just so long as you don't mind making an editor vomit.
I'm not saying professional writers never use any other word. Variety is important - sometimes one of those synonyms can be necessary - it's just not as important as we might think. In fact, it's distracting. Use more than a handful of those synonyms, even across a whole novel, and you've successfully marked yourself down as an amateur. It should be obvious from the story whether your character is likely to be shouting, whispering or murmering their words with a wry smile.
The most offensive way to overwrite your speech tags is to use a word that isn't even a synonym for 'said' in the first place. 'Smile' and 'laugh' are popular with overwriters. For example, ' "I really like you," she laughed. "A lot." '
Note that it's perfectly possible for the passage to read, ' "I really like you," she said with a laugh. "A lot." ' Or even, ' "I really like you." She laughed. "A lot." ' But if you want to be an overwriter you must resist these options at all costs. And don't even start to question why you need to put the laugh in there in the first place, or you'll be in very great danger of making the dialogue substantially better.
So what's my top tip for overwriting? Well, I always say/ remark/ assert/ utter/ holler/ squawk/ whimper/ groan/ whisper/ hiss that a different synonym for every line of speech is about the best way of ruining dialogue there is. Just watch those agents' eyes roll and let the rejections flow!
Can you think of any more variation on 'said' that I can crowbar into my next story?