A very long time ago in a galaxy rather closer than I’d like to admit, I wrote a novel that I now affectionately refer to as “70,000 Words of Untagged Dialogue.” This is exactly what it says on the tin. Not only was it difficult to figure out who was speaking, but because so little detail was given to setting, it was impossible to tell who was present until they chimed in. My dialogue was not only untagged, but ungrounded.
What grounding is: Physical grounding is when dialogue is woven into actions and description. For example “I suppose,” said Dora is tagged, but it is not grounded because there is nothing physical associated with the dialogue. The reader does not know where she is or what she’s doing. Dora poured another spoonful of arsenic into the sugar bowl. “I suppose,” she said, is grounded. It associates the dialogue with an action and gives Dora physicality.
It’s not bad to have a few ungrounded lines. But long blocks of dialogue without grounding risk diminishing the sense of setting, especially if the dialogue occurs at the beginning of a scene before the setting is established.
Why it’s important: Physical grounding is what makes the dialogue feel like a part of a scene rather than a conversation between floating heads. It lets the reader know which characters are present and what’s going on in the scene. In turn, this makes the writing easier to follow by allowing the reader to visualize the characters who are speaking. Grounding also allows you to get more mileage out of your scene because the characters can now be doing things while they speak.
Why it’s badass: The physical grounding can be used to color the dialogue. By interspersing the dialogue with background events, you can change the tone of the conversation. You can also use the physical actions and body language of the characters to convey how they feel about what they’re saying. They can either affirm the sentiment of the dialogue (Mary held out her ring for everyone to see. “Laura finally proposed to me!” she said, beaming) or contradict it (Marry fiddled with her wedding ring. The band was cold against her skin. “Laura finally proposed to me,” she said). Grounding allows you to give your words subtext.