The DOs & DON’Ts of Dialogue
— A DOZEN DIRTY INDESCRETIONS DAMAGING TO PROSE —
Many writers consider dialogue the easiest aspect of prose. After all, it’s just talking, right? How hard could that be? Well, from our perspective, such a mindset probably explains the ubiquity of “direct speech” lacking in direction. Quotes may be your overlooked Achilles’ heel, but here’s the deal: today, we’ll dip you in the old syntactic Styx again.
Important though they are, mechanics won’t be the focus today.
Here, we’re going to handle something heavier: astounding style, so do yourself a folkloristic favor: stick around awhile. Bad dialogue will only be your downfall if you let it. DON’T. Instead, let’s take a look at twelve tremendous missteps often made. Good dialogue is critical to critical success, and yes: on that you’re free to quote us.
1. Exclamatory Madness!
DO your best to convey emotion without resorting to punctuative support. There’s a reason that the sarcasm mark (i.e., sarcmark) has never caught on: it just isn’t seemly. Wit is a flower that wilts when picked. So writing a punchline or interjection, always err on subtlety’s side, as no one cares for a shouter.
DON’T even think about implementing double exclamation points. Our friendship will be over.
2. Ambiguity (Absent ID)
DO make clear where the words are coming from . . . unless you want your readers to feel schizophrenic. Even a brief (puzzled) pause will “ruin the moment,” and that, in itself, is a tragedy. Identification seems too simple to botch, but in many cases, your intimacy with the work proves a blinding disadvantage. No one knows your scene like you do, but make sure that others get the gist.
DON’T wait until the end of a full-on speech to clarify who’s talking:
“I’m pretty unhappy about the sandwich situation. It’s like you don’t even care anymore. When we first met, you’d butter my bread to the edges, and you never forgot the pickles. Darling, I feel our relationship’s stale,” said John.
More like a sloppy joe, you know? We’d ask you to try this instead:
“I’m pretty unhappy about the sandwich situation,” said John. “It’s like you don’t even care anymore. When we first met, you’d butter my bread to the edges, and you never forgot the pickles. Darling, I feel our relationship’s stale.”
As smooth as sriracha mayo.
(And, yes, that’s John as in “John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.” Nicely noted.)
3. Said’s Suspicious Siblings
DO use exotic dialogue tags sparingly. There are plenty of acceptable alternatives to said—whispered or bellowed, for instance—but with many words, you run the risk of redundancy:
“It’s true. I am a bit of a blowhard,” admitted Milton.
“Just give me one bite. We’re buddies,” pestered Patti.
“W-w-well, I . . . I’m n-not sure,” stammered Susan.
“Fetch me my prose pen,” commanded the writer.
Reread those with “said” instead. You’ll find they all work better.
Also, if you’re not careful, getting too cute with your tags can land you in illogical water.
“I guess I’m allergic,” he sneezed. (definitely illogical)
“I guess I’m allergic,” he said with a sneeze. (only illogical if you think about it too hard)
“I guess I’m allergic,” he said and sneezed. (definitely logical)
DON’T go nuts, is all. We always commend variety, but in this case, “said” amounts to punctuation. (Used correctly, it’s never noticed.) You want readers to stay focused on what’s being said, and the words should generally convey tone, so don’t you dare “doll up” (destroy) your dialogue with adverbs . . . warned the copyeditors testily.
4. Modern Mumbo Jumbo and Historical Inaccuracies
DO your research. If you’re really going to have your characters speaking Middle English, you better know your thees from your thous.
DON’T guess or overdo it. A peppering of vernacular contractions is fine. You’re free to sprinkle in some slang. Even a pinch of phonetic spelling should work. Remember, though: there doesn’t exist a spice that can’t be overused . . . and many kinds are lethal!
What’s more, ask yourself if you’ve ever read a best-seller with dialogue that you had to decipher. Excellent reading is easy reading, no matter how deep the content is, so never set out to confuse.
Pile on the jargon?
Jargonna regret it.
5. Small Tiny Talk and Ventriloquy
DO put wind in your story’s sails.
DON’T just shoot the breeze.
Dialogue is a good way to bang off your daily word count. But remember, every word should be advancing the story. Want to score an agent? Sidestep filler like it’s Agent Orange.
Moreover, be careful not to use dialogue as a vessel to recap what’s going on in the story. This kind of cringe makes sense on TV—to those who forgot what happened “last week”—but brazen exposition should always be avoided in literature. A flashback (or simple explanation) is better than unnatural reminiscences. Backstory should be well sifted and mixed into the story with care. Information dumps are disgusting.
6. Chatter in a Vacuum
DO write about what’s happening while the characters are interacting. This will bring readers into the scene. Having dialogue coincide with an action—like a game of chess—works well. Ten pages of “A said, B said” will bore your readers to tears.
DON’T forget that bibliophiles can fill in plenty of blanks on their own. You want to run a tight ship—sure—but going detail overboard will also wreck an exchange.
Voices suspended in space are bad . . . and so are voices buried beneath an avalanche of TMI.
7. Stilted (Clown) Speech
DO make every character sound realistic . . . though that doesn’t mean that they should sound like you. (Sneaking yourself into stories is dangerous—especially if you make a habit of it.) Short on fuel? You may yet to have mastered the art of relentless theft. Pay attention to the mannerisms of everyone you interact with, and tease out some of the more interesting tics.
Note that people are fond of fragments, so do abridge at least a smidge . . . unless you’re really writing robots.
DON’T construct an eloquent speech unless the story calls for one—a lawyer’s closing remarks, for instance. Also, you needn’t include everything. “Real” though they are, those “ums” and “errs” are a real drag to read, so cut ’em.
Finally, this is a tad tangential, but we’re here to help you out in all aspects of life (on and off the books): poets have a penchant for trying to speak how they write, and no one likes it. The truth: if we do have something to say, we shouldn’t obscure it with endless frills. The deeper truth: if we’ve nothing to say, we shouldn’t open our mouths at all.
8. Boring Bluntness
DO use actions to hint at emotions (nervous pencil fiddling, seductive sandwich nibbling, and so on).
You may fall in love on the first date, but you’re smart enough not to profess that love right away. Amongst other things, it’s inherently lazy. If you care for someone special, show them in a squillion ways. You know that’s how it works, so give your novel’s cast the very same treatment.
DON’T be predictable. (That’s what everyone’s expecting.) And never make applesauce when an actual apple is superior. (The sweet crunch of a Honeycrisp just can’t compare to a mouthful of mush.) In the end, no one is tickled by a witticism that’s explained to them. People love to unriddle a good knock-knock joke, and they love to play headshrinker too.
Don’t say too much. Drop clues, not news.
9. Infernal Internal Monologue (IM)
DO use IM when it’s truly called for.
DON’T take shameless shortcuts.
This would be the gym-world equivalent of popping steroids. (Yes, you’ll be jacked, but everyone will sense that you somehow cheated.)
Handy as this magical technique may be, almost everyone is somewhat weirded out by it. Most of the time, our thought stream is murky—cut with competing undercurrents and speckled with disparate sediment.
Even when you’ve got a one-track mind, would a Morgan Freeman voiceover be justified? Which is a more honest reflection of your internal dialogue at dinnertime?
Indeed, a slice of pizza would please me.
Pizza, pizza, pizza.
10. Lacking Brakes with Paragraph Breaks
DO add a break to indicate when someone new is speaking.
DON’T feel the need to start a new paragraph every time words are spoken in general. This is an all-too-common mistake and leads to misattribution, which can make the difference between your book being unputdownable and, frankly, unbearable.
A character’s action(s) and dialogue should be neatly rolled into one paragraphistical package. It’s the only system that makes sense, as organizing conversations this way will allow you to minimize your dialogue tags and maximize your flow.
The following paragraph needn’t be riven, and note that there isn’t one said . . .
Peeling back the crusty crown, John looked to Martha with despair. “You actually used the heel of the loaf to make this tasteless travesty?” He eyed the bread and shed a tear. “Oh, why do you hate me so?”
11. Narration (Instead of Conversation)
DO employ when nothing else “works.”
DON’T bog down a tête-à-tête with too many details. It’s vital to keep things moving. Also, don’t narrate to the point of censorship. Every book has a different amount of dialogue, but just as it’s annoying to have someone put words in your mouth, wondering what characters actually said is no fun.
“Peter professed his love to Petunia in most poetic terms.”
Well, jeez. Don’t tease us. Spill the frijoles.
12. Too Many Different Devices
DO keep your focus on flow. There are endless ways to go about writing dynamic dialogue, but doing too much can lead to disaster.
DON’T suspect that you can juggle group conversation, snippets of internal monologue, a chess game, periodic flashbacks, and painterly sunset descriptions. Keeping all those balls in the air is certainly commendable, but manic flailing, in this case, is failing, so simplify your sleights.
When in doubt, just read it out. When still in doubt, do give a shout. Conversing with an editor or coach can be a game-changer.