Talking Dirty: Jackie & Jill’s Exciting Climax

Pardon me, for this blog post contains sexually explicit examples or content. If you are under the age of 18 or just uncomfortable with sexually explicit material, you may want to check out one of these sites about grammar and writing instead.

Predicate Nominatives Now you know what to do when the quotation is the direct object of a transitive verb and what to do when the quotation stands alone, but there’s one more possibility:

Jackie’s first question was “What are you hiding in that closet?”

Jill hesitated. “A box full of sex toys” seemed like a shocking revelation.

Don’t set off with commas quotations that serve as subjects or predicate nominatives unless the commas are part of the dialogue. In the first example, the quotation is a predicate nominative, and in the second example, the quotation is the subject. If that confuses you at all, don’t fret. Even The Sexy Grammarian herself got caught off-guard recently with some confusion about predicate adjectives and predicate nominatives. In fact, one of next week’s actual-dialogue posts will set us all straight on these grammar topics.

Empty Reaction Enough with the punctuation! Let’s tackle some stylistic issues to consider in dialogue writing. Most writers do our best to make dialogue sound the way it sounds in real life, but if you’re writing fiction, you may want to edit the round-about way most of us speak. Let’s go back to Jackie and Jill:

“Toys, Jackie. There are toys in the closet and maybe the keys to you getting off in more ways than one.”

“Oh?” Jackie said.

“Yes,” Jill replied.

“Really?” Jackie asked.

“Yes, would you like to try something new?”

Realistic as all this pussyfooting around may be, we’re forcing the reader to scan through five lines of text where nothing really happens. And that’s boring. Why not edit to get rid of all those empty reactions so the reader can move on with the story?

“Toys, Jackie. There are toys in the closet and maybe the keys to you getting off in more ways than one. Would you like to try something new?”

But wait! What if Jackie’s empty reactions, “oh” and “really” help us to better understand her character? Now they’re gone, and we know nothing about her reaction to the idea of trying out some of the new sex toys in Jill’s closet! Try replacing empty reaction with meaningful reaction:

“Toys, Jackie. There are toys in the closet and maybe the keys to you getting off in more ways than one. Would you like to try something new?”

Jackie blushed and twisted a pillow in her hands. “I’ll try anything with you, Jill.”

Here, a little blushing, pillow-twisting description couples with more meaningful dialogue. Plus, it’s compacted into one line, which saves you four or five lines of empty reaction and boring reading. Remember, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with empty reactions in your dialogue if that’s really how you want your reader to spend her time.

About Said

“I’m so glad you said that because I want to screw all night,” Jill announced.

“Then come back to bed and do me again,” Jackie sang.

Jill bounded over to her. “Shall we try the vibrator, then?” she inquired.

“First, I want your lips on my clit. Then the vibrator,” Jackie commanded.

What do you notice most about these lines of dialogue? What I notice is that somebody got her hands on a list of flowery synonyms for the word said. That’s no magic trick. A quick Google search of “said synonyms” produces 2,800,000 results! But that doesn’t mean you have to use them in your prose.

In fact, all those fancy synonyms are so noticeable, that I’ve already forgotten what Jackie and Jill said to each other. I remember announcements, singing, inquiries, and commands, but the content? I missed it. Oh well. Maybe it wasn’t very important.

If you’ve taken the time to build character-driven, meaningful, realistic dialogue, descriptive verbs in your dialogue tags may be overkill. If your dialogue tag’s main objective is attribution—helping the reader follow who’s speaking—make it almost invisible. Let the reader focus on the content.

“I’m so glad you said that because I want to screw all night,” Jill said.

“Then come back to bed and do me again.”

Jill bounded over to her. “Shall we try the vibrator, then?”

“First, I want your lips on my clit,” Jackie said. “Then the vibrator.”

In attribution, writes William Brohaugh*, “said” is an invisible workhorse. Never worry about repeating “said” a number of times. Sure, if asked is appropriate or whispered is key to the scene, use them, but if the dialogue is about the dialogue, let it shine and let the tags do their job without taking up so much attention

Sometimes seeking out a synonym for said can screw up your grammar—when the verb you’re using is not really a synonym. Remember that the verb in a dialogue tag must be a transitive verb because the dialogue itself is that verb’s direct object. What’s wrong with this final exchange?

Jill argued, “But it’s almost dawn. I want you to come fast, before we have to get up.”

“Don’t worry, my love,” Jackie giggled. “We have the rest of our lives.”

Argued is not a synonym for said. You can argue a case and argue for argument’s sake, but can you argue a line of dialogue? Try the direct object test:

Jill (subject) argued (verb) what?

She argued against Jackie’s idea about oral sex. She argued that it was almost dawn, but she did not argue the words in the adjacent quote. She said them. Or she might have yelled them. And what about Jackie’s giggle? Can you giggle that line? Try it! Try giggling anything. And try the direct object test:

Jackie (subject) giggled (verb) what?

Jackie giggled nothing! Giggle is an intransitive verb. You don’t giggle something. You just giggle. You can keep the arguing and the giggling. But they’re not synonyms for said, and they’re not part of a dialogue tag. Why not just let them be adjacent action?

Jill argued. “But it’s almost dawn. I want you to come fast, before we have to get up.”

“Don’t worry, my love.” Jackie giggled. “We have the rest of our lives.”

It’s Dialogue Month on The Sexy Grammarian’s Blog! This week’s posts focus on punctuating dialogue, and next week, I bring you a series of actual dialogues between the The Sexy Grammarian and a parade of grammar, sex, and communications experts. Subscribe now to follow the conversation.

*The work of William Brohaugh inspires my approach to editing. My father gave me his excellent book, Write Tight, when I started my business, and I’ve suggested it to almost every client since. In this post, I’ve borrowed two concepts from him: the Empty Reaction as well as the Invisible Workhorse. Go say hello to him at his blog. You’re sure to learn something.

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  1. April 29th, 2011
  2. March 12th, 2012
  3. March 12th, 2012

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