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Up From Down Under Feb 2009

Take a Break – Part 2



In the first part of “Take a Break” we discussed em dashes and ellipses. They are very useful for showing breaks and pauses in dialogue. If you missed it, please pause, take a break, find it, and read it before continuing with Part 2.


I believe in approaching the topic in an ordered fashion. Part 1 should be read before Part 2.


As well as em dashes and ellipses, two other things that writers frequently use with dialogue are audible utterances and non-vocalised actions.


Audible utterances are tricky. At times they strengthen the tone of dialogue, but sometimes they don’t. My definition of “audible utterances” includes the sighs, gasps, laughs and other sound effects that often accompany dialogue.


“You slimy, slobbering slug!” John hissed.


We can really hear the sibilance in John’s exclamation. The attributive verb “hissed” matches the words and enhances the effect.


“I love you, Bob,” she sighed.


The verb “sighed” helps us appreciate the emotion within the words.


Now, let me add: I don’t advocate the abundance of flowery attributions. Many editors and publishers prefer the dull old “said”. Why? Because it says nothing and most readers will scan right across it without a second thought, or even being aware it was there. So, if you subscribe to that school of writing, how are you going to incorporate your audible sound effects?


Extending the speech attribution is one way. For example:


“You slimy, slobbering slug!” John said with a hiss.


Yuck! What a waste of words! I’d rather stick with “John hissed”, thank you. This is where we’ve got to start thinking: Show, don’t tell.


“You slimy, slobbering slug!” John said, wiping the spittle from his lips.




“I love you, Bob,” she said, catching her breath while holding him tight to her bosom.


And now, one of my favourites. While I believe you can hiss, sigh, snigger, chuckle, chortle, and breathe, etc., your words, I don’t believe you can laugh them out.


This is a no-no: “You are such a hoot,” he laughed.


These are okay:


He laughed. “You are such a hoot.”


“That was so funny,” she gasped, holding her sides and emitting a loud belly-laugh.


The gasped words, preliminary to the deep-seated laughter, seem appropriate. But the words could not have been laughed out of her mouth at exactly the same time as the “belly-laugh”.


Non-vocals cannot be used as speech attributions.


These are always wrong:


“How are you?” he smiled.


“Hey, Graham!” she waved.


“Place the plate next to the cup and saucer,” he pointed.


Facial expressions, body movements, and gestures are not attributions of speech. At a minimum you need to add an attributive verb. Or, once again, you could show rather than tell.


“How are you?” he said with a smile.


“How are you?” His warm smile welcomed her home.


“Hey, Graham!” she called and waved.


“Hey, Graham!” Debbie’s voice reached across the crowded room and focussed his attention on her wildly waving arms.


“Place the plate next to the cup and saucer,” he said, pointing.


He pointed. “Place the plate next to the cup and saucer.”



Until next month, when in part three I’ll discuss interjecting narrative within dialogue.



Les Stephenson

Up From Down Under - February 2009