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Dialogue is Not Necessarily How We Talk

Last month I talked about what dialogue is. This time I’ll share what dialogue should not be.

Common mistakes:

Unnatural dialogue. Using characters’ names repeatedly. Laughing words. “You’re crazy,” laughed Justin. (Correct: said Justin with a laugh or Justin laughed. “You’re crazy.”)

    Over-descriptive dialogue. Too many adjectives and adverbs. We don’t speak like this: “When I looked at the blood red velvet petals of the roses, I knew this wasn’t just a Valentine’s gift.”

      Lecture dialogue. Long speeches. Too much information. A “teaching” moment or a device to show off all the research you did for this story.

        Exposition. “As you know, Ted, my daughter was an A student in college and a sprinter, but she lost a leg in a car accident, and is staying home now.” Do the characters’ have the information already? Are you just trying to provide info for the reader?

          Talking heads. No action or setting in between to remind us where they are, what they’re doing, besides talking. When you’re writing a scene, it might help to think of our characters as being onstage. Your reader will want to know what they look like, what the stage setting looks like, how they move around, body language or choreography. This is also called “beat” or “grounding.” Rather than having people talking back and forth for pages at a time (talking heads), bring the reader back to the setting occasionally (about every 3rd paragraph, at least).

            Filler dialogue. Unnecessary (like “How are you?” “I’m fine.”) Fails to move the plot forward.

              Redundant dialogue. Repeated in narrative and dialogue. Example: Almost immediately, Armstrong saw a periscope break the water in front of him. “Periscope,” he said, pointing.

                Ho-hum dialogue. Lacks tension and/or conflict. Conflict doesn’t necessarily mean an argument. It can be a civilized conversation in which each character is determined to thwart the other’s agenda.

                  Cloned dialogue. All the characters sound the same. Some people use contractions, others don’t. Some show their education with big words, foreign phrases, etc. Some talk in math terms or sports terms. People talk differently to family members than they do to co-workers.

                  Stilted dialogue. Stiff, formal, perfect English—unless you want to portray your character this way. But use it sparingly.

                  Use of dialect or slang. Be careful and use it like a very strong spice—just a little goes a long way. When you use an unusual spelling, you divert the reader’s attention away from the dialogue while he’s trying to figure out what word that is. If the dialect gets too thick it becomes a matter of translation, rather than reading. The occasional dropped “g” or words like “gonna” or “lemme” isn’t a problem—but don’t overdo it. You can let your readers know your character is southern or French by mentioning that in narrative.

                  Taglines. Whenever possible, try to use an action instead of a tagline (he said, she said). One of the reasons for not using a lot of taglines is to develop each person’s distinct voice, so that all your characters don’t sound the same. Hint: If you do use taglines, it’s better to stick with the word “said”, rather than trying to come up with substitutes such as cry, interject, interrupt, mused, state, counter, conclude, mumble, intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode. These are “telling” words. Let the words in the dialogue show the emotion. And you can NEVER smile words, or squint them, or laugh them.

                  DIALOGUE CHECKLIST (From Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King)

                  Read your dialogue out loud (or listen while someone else reads it).

                    As you read, watch for places you feel like changing the wording—do so.

                      How smooth and polished is your dialogue? Could you use more contractions, sentence fragments, more run-on sentences?

                        Is your stiff dialogue really exposition in disguise?

                          How well do your characters understand each other? Do they ever mislead one another? Any outright lies?

                            How about dialect? Are you using a lot of unusual spellings? If you rewrite your dialect with standard spellings does it still read like dialect?

                            OTHER GUIDELINES (From How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein)

                            What counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant.

                              Whenever possible, dialogue should be adversarial. Thing of dialogue as confrontations or interrogations. Remember, combat can be subtle.

                                The best dialogue contains responses that are indirect, oblique.

                                  Dialogue is illogical. Non-sequiturs are fine. So are incomplete sentences and occasional faulty grammar suited to the character.

                                    Dialogue, compared to actual speech, is terse. If an individual’s dialogue runs over three sentences, you may be speechifying. In actual accusatory confrontations, however, longer speeches can increase tension if the accusations build.

                                      Tension can be increased by the use of misunderstandings, impatience, each character going off a “different script.”

                                        Characters reveal themselves best in dialogue when they lose their cool and start blurting things out.

                                          In dialogue, every word counts. Be ruthless in eliminating excess verbiage.

                                          A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.
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                                          1. Excellent post!

                                            Thanks for sharing, Heidi :)

                                          2. This is great! Thanks so much.
                                            Tam :)

                                          3. A good reminder for editing, and when writing as well.

                                            Straight From Hel

                                          4. You covered a lot of ground here, Heidi! One of my favorite sayings about dialogue is: "If your dialogue is about only what the characters are saying, it's not doing it's job." Creating subtext could be a whole other post.

                                          5. I do workshops on dialogue, and your post hits all the points. Dialogue isn't real speech, but it has to sound like real speech.

                                          6. Good tips. Glad to have the refresher.

                                          7. This is a fab post! Muttie actually went off and wrote something after reading it!


                                          8. Thank you for a wonderful post. I am writing my first book and trying to get my head around editing. I am up to Draft #2 but from what I read in your post I have a few more drafts to go! Thanks for an insightful post - I found it very helpful!

                                          9. I went over it twice to try and get all of it into my head. I'm pretty sure I knew most of it but there's nothing like a reminder to help you remember to use it.

                                          10. Wow, thanks very much for sharing! I will keep all of these in mind...this is very helpful! :)

                                          11. Good tips. Glad to have the refresher.


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