If you get stuck, just write like Robert B. Parker

Robert B. Parker
Robert B. Parker

Dialogue has always intrigued me.  It is one of those things that if it is right, you don’t notice it, and if it is wrong, it stands out like a sore thumb.

Writers receive the same bit of advice at all writers conferences:  Read your book aloud, and you will find out if passages work, or if you need to re-write them.

Nowhere does this make more sense than when it comes to dialogue.

But there is one hitch, those pesky little phrases known as attributions. He said, she said, he asked, she asked.

Caleb Pirtle and I have talked about attribution often.  As we see it, on the written page those words are invisible.  The reader skips over them, or only gives them a passing glance to make sure she knows which character is speaking.  That is why writers shouldn’t use fancy attributions like he opined, or she queried, etc. Phrases such as those add nothing to a book’s content and detract from the meat of the conversation.

Back to Robert Parker.  His dialogue crackles with energy, and he uses a lot of he saids and she saids. The only time a reader is aware of the tag words is if she reads the book aloud.

Here is a snippet from Parker’s Jesse Stone book, Trouble in Paradise.

Suitcase Simpson came through the open door into Jesse’s office without knocking.  He said, “Jesse, was that your ex-wife I seen on TV last night?”

“I don’t know, Suit,” Jesse said. “What did you see?”

Channel Three News,” Simpson said. “They got a new weather girl, Jenn Stone.”

She’d used her married name.

“Weather girl?” Jesse said.

“Yeah, they said she was from Los Angeles and were joking around with her about how it would be pretty different trying to report New England weather.”

“And it looked like Jenn?”

“Yeah, I only seen her that one time, but you know she’s not somebody you forget.”

“No,” Jesse said, “she’s not.”

And so on it goes.

If you have read Parker, you know that sometimes the dialogue continues like that for a page or two at a time.  That’s why his books are so much fun to read, and why readers feel like they are racing through his books, which is exactly the effect Parker wanted to create, I’m sure.

Robert B. Parker died in January 2010.  Reports at the time said he was at his typewriter writing when he went on to his eternal reward.

It would not surprise me at all if the last words he typed were he said.

 

 

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  • I love Parker’s style. It’s almost like a script. Dialogue is so important, but he takes it to the next level. Great post!

    • Jennifer, Parker was able to communicate so much with those sparkling exchanges. He is one of my all-time favorites. Thanks for the comment.

  • I think that you usually need the attributions in a group conversation. But, even then, when the conversation gets rolling and the readers are familiar enough with the characters, attributions become “speed bumps”. If your characters aren’t well-developed enough for the readers to follow their contributions to a conversation, maybe you have other problems.

    • Jack, that is the other side of the coin. But I have to say that Parker’s attributions have never distracted me. In a sense, I think he used them to set the rhythm to his writing, to add a cadence.

      • Carolyn Ridder Aspenson

        I completely agree with you. I hate using “said” and often feel as if I use it too much but Parker had such a flow to his writing the “said” never bothered me. I’ll be forever amazed at his ability to write three word sentences that packed such serious punch. Nobody could write tight like Parker.

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