Point of View – Action and Internal Dialogue

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He said.  She said. (plain attributions – quotation marks indicate the ‘said’)
He exclaimed.  She begged.  (fancy attributions)
He exclaimed loudly.  She begged earnestly.  (fancy attributions with modifiers)

And so on and so on and so on…

The attributions above will indeed identify your speaker, but let me lay out an argument that the pesky and unnecessary words actually switch POV from your character to yourself in the form of author intrusion, TELLING the reader who is speaking. I propose that action can SHOW who is speaking in such a much stronger way and take your manuscript at least two more rungs up the ladder.

point-of-view

Dialogue—the words themselves—should portray the speaker’s stance or mood. For example on the above: “Stop it! Don’t ever do that again.” he screamed. Don’t the words spoken indicate he screamed? Or “Please, sir, please don’t. I’ll never do it again,” she begged earnestly. See how her words transfer the idea of her earnest begging?

Now to further prove my supposition, let’s use action with the same dialogue. Frank grabbed the teenager’s arm and jerked him back from the edge of the cliff. “Stop it! Don’t ever do that again.” Can’t you hear him screaming? And look how the picture you painted with words has so much more detail. The action also gives insight into the character.

Or for the woman: Alta threw herself at his feet and grasped his leg. “Please, sir, please don’t. I’ll never do it again.” The action not only identifies the speaker, but gives your reader new mental images, and isn’t that what we’re trying to do? Paint word pictures? (related tip: Be sure the action and dialogue appear in the same paragraph, and that each time someone else speaks, they get their own new paragraph.)

That said, one beauty of POV that gives books an edge over movies is internal dialogue. That’s why so many times a movie-goer says it didn’t measure up to the book. Introspection elevates a work from acceptable to exceptional, especially when your player is saying one thing and thinking another; revealing the POV character’s innermost thoughts. (related tip: why put internal dialogue in italics? If you are in a character’s POV, isn’t all the narrative actually his thoughts, describing the action or scene as it relates to him? Yes, of course it is, so resist the urge for italics.)

Internal dialogue is also another option to identify who is talking and may be used in combination with action. Again with the examples above: Frank turned, and his heart stopped. Why had his nephew stepped so close? His sister would never stop blaming him if anything happened to the boy. He grabbed the teenager’s arm and jerked him back from the cliff’s edge. “Stop it! Don’t ever do that again.”

And for the feminine example: Alta threw herself at his feet and grasped his leg. Why couldn’t she ever stifle her reactions? “Please, sir, please don’t. I’ll never do it again.” Would the infraction cost her lover his life? She wouldn’t let it happen. No way could she live without his arms to hold her.

Now you tell me which is better. “Stop it! Don’t ever do that again.” he screamed. OR Frank turned, and his heart stopped. Why had his nephew stepped so close to the edge? His sister would never stop blaming him if anything happened to the boy. He grabbed the teenager’s arm and jerked him back from the edge of the cliff. “Stop it! Don’t ever do that again.” And it’s the same in Alta’s case. Yes, SHOWING usually takes more words than TELLING, but surely you recognize the benefit in these illustrations.

Let’s consider action and internal dialogue as spices, quite superior to bland attributions. I’ve convinced you of that, right? Who wants to eat an unseasoned stew? Think of verbs as the meat; they drive your story and do offer a little stock flavor moving your characters through the pages of your word-painted world. Nouns are the potatoes and carrots giving a sense of the story’s physical element. Action and internal dialogue provide the spices: salt, pepper, garlic, basil, cilantro, cumin. Man, isn’t that stew tasting good now?

A cook seasons the pot to her personal taste, suits herself. She may be the only one who ever eats it; I mean reads it. I like things spicy. This editor/author allows herself maybe two attributions per book. Yes, per book. Be aware and count how many attributions you have on a page, in a chapter. Until you have mastered not using attributions and made it a habit, in writing your first draft, go ahead and use them, then go back and replace them with action, internal dialogue, or a combination of both to strengthen your work.

Action and internal dialogue is so much stronger to identify a speaker for several reasons. #1 it’s ‘active’ not ‘passive’ which is always better  #2 it gives your reader a brand new mental picture, even a simple action like ‘He smiled.’  #3 you can use the action and internal to enhance characterization. Example: She stomped her foot and put both fists on her hips. Isn’t that so much better than ‘She declared angrily’? And see how it reveals more about the character, too?

Like sentence structure, don’t forget to mix actions and internal dialogue stylistically – long ones, short ones, and sometimes in conjunction with each another; put them at the front, in the end, or maybe in the middle of the dialogue. Change them up, keep them interesting. You cannot always use a two word attribution (He smiled / She nodded) or they stick out like an orange in the lime bin and interrupt the dialogue’s smooth flow.

Yes, plenty of attributions exist in published books on the shelves, even those by major authors. They are acceptable. But in these days when editors want to find a reason to reject your manuscript, don’t you want yours to be tight and a step above? Get into the practice of using action instead of attributions, and your writing rises to stand out like a Harlem Globetrotter on an episode of Little People.

Next Tuesday, get ready for a Texas Tender on HOOKING Readers, Where/How to Open.

I will have more in later articles on POV, but you have got to hook ‘em before you can razzle them with your dazzle! And please—what other topics would you like for me to cover?

12 Comments
  1. Bart says

    Thank you, Caryl, for another fine article – I’m following you closely.

    1. Caryl McAdoo says

      Hey Bart! Thank you very much! I have a question. Do you think I should throw in HOOKING Readers then come back to POV right away or Go on to MOTIVATION? Just don’t want to overdo Point of view! There’s so much on it, but I didn’t want to overwhelm. Thanks ahead of time for your opinion! And blessings from Texas! Caryl

  2. Paula Boer says

    Glad to find someone else has an aversion to attributions – I never use them.

    1. Caryl McAdoo says

      Hey Paula! Yay! So many writers want to argue over attributions just because they are everywhere. Glad you agree they are weak and passive and need to be lost at all cost! Blessings to you from Texas! Caryl

  3. Andy Bachman says

    Very interesting and very well explained.
    But if someone would say something in a hoarse voice, wouldn’t you need an attribution like “..,” he said hoarsely?
    Or would you change the sentence explaining that his voice sounds hoarse, before his text?
    Thank you in advance,
    Andy

    1. Caryl McAdoo says

      Hey Andy, Thanks for the question.
      If it isn’t the POV character, no big problem, although a sentence of introspection easily eliminates the passive attribution and gets the same point across. (ex: Man, if that rasp in his throat got any worse, he might as well forget getting any point across.)
      But if it is the POVC, he can excuse his voice ahead of time (ex: ‘Forgive me for croaking, my allergies…”) if it is pertinent to the story. But if it isn’t germane, you’d just be adding an unnecessary attribution and ‘ly’ word. You also could always wax poetic or use a metaphor or simile. (ex: “Mercy, how did Pap’s gravel get in my throat?” or “To speak scratched his throat like a thousand knives, but he had to speak. She was leaving.”)
      Remember, what might take you thirty minutes to get just right, the reader will read in seconds, but if it is just right, they’ll be remembering it long after. I still love quoting Dean Koontz’s great line, “The icy rain nailed the night to the city.” Doesn’t that just say it? Woo!

      1. Andy Bachman says

        Thanks again, Caryl, for your explicit answers; they help me a lot.
        Now I’ll try to make sure my sentences of introspection come out right, and will not irritate the reader as passive attributions do 🙂
        Do I understand correctly that you would advise against attributions EVEN if it isn’t the POV character (as you said, ‘no big problem’)?
        i.e., would it be wise to avoid them where possible?
        Time investment is not the issue, as Angie also told us one needs to spend ‘a ridiculous amount of time’ to get the text just right.
        Andy

  4. Bart says

    Hello, again, Caryl,

    I think your articles on POV are not overdone at all. By all means, post the whole series, as nobody will feel overwhelmed by them. On the contrary, I can’t wait to read all there is to know about this subject.

  5. Caryl McAdoo says

    Hey Bart and thanks for your response. I’ve been switching internet servers and my comupter’s been down several days. I apologize for not getting your opinion unitl AFTER posting HOOKING READERS, but hooks are always important. Back to POV for next week, ‘Land Mines and Pifalls’,so stay tuned to Texas Tender! Blessings from Texas!

  6. Kristin Fouquet says

    Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  7. Caryl McAdoo says

    Kristin, you are welcome! It’s wonderful to know that my time spent sharing is helping someone. l appreciate your comments.

  8. Caryl McAdoo says

    And Andy – that answer is yes. Think of it this way, hold your attributions down to one or two A BOOK! Always use action (short, long, mix it up) and introspection (if POVC) or posturing can help, too. If one character just climbed into a tree, the “He looked down” will automatically tell us who it is without mentioning the name of the character–which is a whole ‘nother issue with me – TOO MANY PROPER NAMES! 🙂

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