Dialogue don’ts

Dialogue is where an author most clearly shows her depth and mastery of craft. Learn to do this piece well, and you’ll be far more likely to carry the interest of an agent, editor and reader.

Modern novels are dialogue-heavy. We are, after all, a cinematic society. We’re used to a lot of talking on screen, giving us an immediate experiential sense of who the characters are–or rather how they are.

This post is on what not to do in dialogue, since avoiding these errors will clear the decks for you to move on to dramatic and character-based dialogue.

Repeating names.

“Thanks, Sarah. I needed that.”

Think of how many times in the day you say your spouses name. Almost never, right?

Revise: “Thanks. I needed that.”

Attribution.

“Somebody inside?” he asked.

She responded with a nervous, “Huh?”

“You were,” he said sternly, “looking at the kitchen door.”

“No, nobody,” she said, straight faced. “I just don’t like visitors.” She tried changing the subject. “You don’t trust me.”

“You build trust,” he muttered sadly. “Think we’re doing that?”

The boring and persistent repetition of he said, she said–or worse, he opined, she guffawed–take the bite out of dialogue and reduce verisimilitude, a state where we are lulled into thinking we’re really hearing people talk.

Revise:

He cocked his head at the door. “Somebody inside?”

Her stomach dropped a few floors. “Huh?”

“You were looking at the kitchen door.”

“No. Nobody. I just don’t like visitors.” She needed to change the subject. “You don’t trust me.”

“You build trust. Think we’re doing that?”

–from my work in progress

Exclamation points.

The realization dawned. How had she never seen this before? “You never loved me!”

Josh stood before her, soaking wet, his back pack dripping. “Oh my God, I thought you were dead!”

It may seem like, in moments of strong feeling, exclamation points help to underscore high emotion. In fact, they undermine it. You are using  punctuation in place of getting the emotion on the page.

Revise:

She knew, then, with an awful certainty, the thing she could never admit about their marriage. “You never loved me.” He tried to protest, but she rode over it. “Not ever, in twenty years.”

Her son stood before her, soaking wet, his back pack dripping. “Josh.” She staggered forward. “Oh, honey. I thought you were . . .”

“I know. Dead.”

On the nose dialogue.

Instead of using “direct dialogue” in which characters say exactly what they mean in an obvious way: add interest and deepen characters, by using indirection through subtext, wit, reparte, charm, lies, hyperbole, metaphoric language (“My dog is a Nazi.”)

Unnecessary dialogue.

If the dialogue section is routine, familiar, lacking tension, it shouldn’t be a scene. Remove it, covering anything needful in narration. On the other hand, your boring dialogue scene might be revised to bring in issues, conflict and wit despite its outward mundane topic.

Wordy dialogue.

Keep each “side” of the dialogue short unless it is a critical description that needs to come from a character. Succinct is better than wordy. It is more dramatic and feels less like author intrusion.

Bald dialogue.

But don’t pare back dialogue to machine gun brevity. Use some “blocking” movements (He cocked his head at the door) and internal dialogue to break it up (She needed to change the subject.) Blocking and internal dialogue reveals character, and deepens the emotional connection. So don’t create talking heads:

“Somebody inside?”

“Huh?”

“You were looking at the kitchen door.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“You build trust. Think we’re doing that?”

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Have you got favorite Don’ts in dialogue? Let’s hear them. And for more dialogue topics, see these previous posts:

Subtext in dialogue

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5 Responses

  1. Dialog is a powerful tool for creating distinct and vivid characters and heightening tension, as every screenwriter knows. But it’s all too easy to overuse dialog — you get pages and pages of talking heads, saying things that could be better shown in action narrative. details of setting, pacing, etc. I’m not sure how that comes out as a “Don’t,” maybe Don’t bash your reader over the head with dialog that serves a purpose that could better be accomplished by other means”?

  2. Pat Bourke says:

    My particular favourite Don’t is what I think of as “conversational gingerbread”: the “Oh,” “Well,” “So”, etc. often used as a lead-in when a character starts speaking.
    “So, are you going to the dance?”
    “Well, I haven’t decided.”
    “Oh, I see.”

    Although that’s often how people speak, it actually gets between the reader and the meaning behind what the character is saying.

  3. Kay says:

    Thanks for that – it’s such an easy Don’t to do. Writers feel they are making things more realistic “since that is how people really talk.” But of course, we don’t want to hear how people really talk- oddly, we want to be entertained.

  4. My favorite don’t is “As you know Bob”:

    “As you know Bob, I fell in love with you when I met you at that party…

    It’s such a clumsy way to give information that is hilarious.

  5. Kay says:

    Right! Using dialogue in attempt to make an info dump more palatable. Great one.

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