The Art of Writing No. 7
Possibly one of the most irritating idiosyncrasies a reader has to put up with is the spattering overuse of “he said”, “she said” or “replied”, “retorted”, “interjected” and so on. I am not saying that they should not be used, far from it, but in dialogue they should be used initially to determine who is speaking and then sparingly thereafter.
Let me develop this further. Two people are talking. You have set the scene, as discussed in the last blog, so the reader has a picture of where the two characters are situated and one speaks and the other replies. From then on, if the dialogue is sharp, maintaining the characteristics of each of them, we do not need to be directed as to who is now speaking because the dialogue tells us everything. We know the speaker from the ping pong flow of their communication.
Here is an extract from Azimuth. Note how all the elements discussed above come into play. There are sections in my trilogy where whole pages are just dialogue and (I understand from feedback) are perfectly easy to follow:
Kamil pronounced his next words quietly, for emphasis, -It means a release from your petty pilfering and the attentions of the palace guard, a life reborn in another place where none know you. Now tell me why I have brought you here, do you think? Kamil levelled his eyes at the man so that they flashed behind his mask.
-I cannot say. They came in the night, the monks, and wrapped me in that blanket and took me to a cell, then brought me here blind to the world. For what reason I know not.
-I ask you once more. Why you? What have you done?
The man’s eyes were downcast. He still shook spasmodically, –I had thought all my debts were paid and now it is as if I have done naught..
-For stealing from the soldiers’ kitchen. It was wrong but my wife and child were without-
-A palace guard was spying on me. It must be so because I was too careful for it to be happenchance. He gave me a choice. He would cut off my right hand unless I did a certain thing about which I must say nothing.
-He gave you three names and told you to go to the captain of the guard with them. You were to say that you saw them meet the Princess’s maid.
The prisoner looked bemused and blurted out, -In the palace garden. You knew this already?