When I was a teenager we used to play a game called ‘Consequences’. It went like this: one person began with he said – and then a statement: the next person went she said and a response, and the third person said and the consequence was… and made up the punch line. it tended towards the sexual and one example might be:
He said, how about a dance?
She said, I don’t mind if I do.
And the consequence was – (you can fill that bit in yourselves…)
Now, that sort of thing is all very well in the playground, but in fiction you can’t just keep on saying he said, she said as it rapidly gets very boring. So as well as using synonyms for said (uttered, responded, managed to say, etc) you need to be creative in how you portray dialogue. You can get away without putting the speakers names in for a few lines, but after a while the reader tends to lose track of who is speaking. So you can do this sort of thing:
‘He’s perfect, isn’t he?’ Lily was bending over the cot, her face soft with love.
James started to speak. ‘Yes, he is, he’s -‘ but then emotion overtook him as well and they just stood, holding hands and gazing at their firstborn son.
That’s not a direct quote from Harry Potter – or indeed anywhere – but it shows how much information you can convey without even using said or its synonyms.
C P Snow is adept at showing character through dialogue, and particularly at conveying a self-deprecating attitude in his main character who is also the narrator, by reporting his word rather than giving them (I said yes; I agreed; I said that it was).
Dialogue needs to flow, and it needs to do more than just give the words spoken, otherwise it becomes indistinguishable from a play: Ivy Compton Burnett is an example in point:
I can’t find an example of her dialogue but check her out.
Ian Rankin is also adept at displaying character through dialogue. Well, let’s face it, he’s adept at everything, but let’s take a look:
‘Cafferty unlinked his hands so he could raise a finger, as if to stress a point. “Difference between Rebus and me – he’d sit in the bar all night and buy drinks for no bugger.” He gave a cold chuckle. “This is the sum total of why you’ve brought me in here – because I bought some poor immigrant a drink?”
“How many poor immigrants do you think could wander into this bar?” Rebus asked.
Cafferty made show of thinking, closing his sunken eyes and then opening them again. They were like dark little pebbles in his huge pale face. “You have a fair point,” he admitted.’
In this very short extract from ‘Exit Music’, we have body language, tone of voice, a sense of the history of their relationship and insight into character, as well as visual imagery, all packed in a couple of sentences. That is the genius of a master, to convey just enough – not too much – through dialogue and hence avoid unnecessary swathes of description.
Incidentally what’s also really interesting about the relationship between Rebus and Cafferty is how uncomfortably close the two characters become at times; and how near enmity and hatred can be to friendship and love.
So get reading and check out any or all of these authors!