I first tried my hand at fiction writing when I knew my astronomy career was coming to an end (or at the very least a pause) about six years ago. I look back at words written then and I’ve discovered I would write a line of dialogue, and then write three or four lines of narrative explaining the dialogue. Something along the lines of:
“Hello, my name is Petal.” She said with trepidation and a wobble of unsureness that made the words come out with more syllables than they should. She was wary that her ‘out there’ name would offend the people at this private school that all looked so conventional in their purple and gold uniforms. How could they ever like her with her odd name. She’d picked ‘hello’ rather than her typical ‘dude’ cause she needed to fit in. At least she needed to try.
“Hello.” Came the cold and clipped response from the tallest girl in the pack.
“Hello.” Petal said back, this time she tried to make it more solid greeting.
“Petal is a stupid name. Were your parents hippies or something?” The girl said with a snarl that made the corners of her mouth dip down towards her chin.
You get the idea. And although this type of writing can be done well, I certain was not doing it well. Also, the more I write the more I want the to narration to get out of the way and to just let the voices have plenty of clear space to speak. This desire was stoked further when I took a class in playwriting and wrote a couple of short plays. I love writing plays. Everything has to be conveyed through the words the characters say – or the actions the do on stage. It is like writing in 3rd person objective (which I also love to do). You have no access to thoughts, or intentions, of the characters. All you can do is record is the words that come out their mouths and the actions that they do. The words the characters say have to be good enough to express what the characters are thinking/feeling or how they are relating to others around them. This has led to me completely stripping the passages in my story that concentrate on dialogue right back — I rarely now even use dialogue tags. For example:
“What? I can’t hear you. Come back, would you?”
Kathryn turned back and returned to the end of the pier and Davy. “What else did your Mum tell you about Bruno Downey?”
“I’ll tell you everything I know if you sit down and have a beer.”
“And no more yelling at me, or hitting me? Agreed?”
“I didn’t hit you!”
This is my much preferred way of handling dialogue now — though I will admit that often I have to go back after I’ve finished a conversation to slot in some action/internal thoughts of the main character, etc. Elmore Leonard says in his “10 Rules of Writing” to never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. And I like his rationale, namely: The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. Indeed, this is why I’ve gone the route of dialogue-tag-less writing. However, how does one do this when there is more than two people speaking? Minimized or removing dialogue tags are easy to do when there are two people having a conversation, but the thing I’m about to tackle in earnest for the first time is to portray a group conversation. And frankly, I’m a bit intimidated.
Mr. Leonard also includes in his ten rules to never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” as it interrupts the rhythm of the exchange. Again, I agree with him, but how does one do this for a large conversation and it not turn into a bit of a said overload? I mean, does something like the following even feel right?
“Pass the butter,” said Peter.
“I don’t want to pass the butter,” said Sarah.
“Don’t be rude to your brother,” said Judith.
“Yeah, don’t be rude to your brother!” said Peter.
“Both of you stop acting like children,” said Andrew.
To me it feels clunky and annoying. But, then how does one switch between speakers and help the reader keep up with who is speaking? Who has managed to do this successfully? Any hints and tips for a somewhat-baffled newbie writer?