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Answer The Question!

We’ve covered some of the basics about dialogue and dialogue tags in previous posts, so let’s take a look at a related writing habit that can confuse readers. Have a read:

“Should I call Eric back?” Charlotte asked.

Charlotte was the kind of person who never hesitated to jump in when people needed help. It was deeply ingrained in her personality. When she was younger, she’d been in a car accident, and despite a broken arm, she’d immediately run over to the other car to see if everyone in there was okay. Another time, she traveled two states by bus to visit a friend who was very ill.

Her belief was that one of her roles in life was to always be there for people when they needed assistance, which led to some extraordinary efforts on her part, and on occasion some trouble, such as when she visited another sick friend and his jealous girlfriend started asking questions about the nature of their relationship.

“I don’t know,” I answered.

If you glanced back up to the top of the piece to remember what the question was, you’re beginning to understand the problem. The reader expects a back and forth in dialogue. When the writer places something between the dialogue points, it interrupts the back and forth. I’m not suggesting that there cannot be anything between people talking, but what the writer puts in there can be distracting, and the more that comes between the question and response, the more obscure the response can get.

In the case above, the writer decides to put a lot of information about Charlotte between a simple question and response. The reader starts with the question in mind, but as the information about Charlotte continues, the reader typically turns off the question and starts to gather the information instead—it’s in there for a reason, after all. Then comes the answer, without context.

This example is dialogue-specific, but this is also part of a larger discussion about effective paragraph writing. Starting a paragraph without context can be an effective “shock” tool. Two examples:

I found myself lying on the ground, dying.

The man without a shadow promises you the world.

Sure, these grab the reader’s attention. But I think you’ll agree that in the back-and-forth between two characters regarding a telephone call in the first example, there’s no reason to be shocking the reader with no-context paragraph starters.

So how do we deal with the first example? There are a few ways, but the simplest is to move the “I don’t know” dialogue and tag to the start of the paragraph, then let the rest of the paragraph expand on the concept of Charlotte’s generosity. In most cases I’ve come across, one character’s dialogue can be moved to just after the other piece of dialogue, which can then be followed by the paragraph of explanation.

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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