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The Daily Life of a Compulsive Writer

Dialogue No-No’s June 17, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 5:59 PM
Tags: , ,

I’m revisiting dialogue today with a look at what not to do. I’ve made all of these mistakes many times. Thanks to kind – or blunt – more experienced writers calling me (or someone else) out on it, I’ve learned what to avoid. Sometimes I think all of writing is screwing up and having someone fix it for you. Work hard and you can be the one doing the fixing.

1. Tag overdose

We’ve all run into the over emotive cast. Characters don’t say anything. They whisper growl, exclaim, pronounce, shout. Clearly the writer has gotten carried away with their thesaurus.

When it comes to dialogue, said is usually the best word to use. Our minds naturally skip over it. However, it’s essentially meaningless, and it’s best to cut every word you can. By reworking the scene, you can avoid as many dialogue tags as possible. Instead of “he said”, throw in a snippet of action. “‘You can’t go in there.’ He crossed his arms and stood in front of the doorway.” “She took a sip of her coffee and looked at him sidelong. ‘What exactly are you suggesting?'” This reminds the reader that the physical world hasn’t gone away while your characters were chatting.

2. Say my name

I once saw a video of clips from Titanic. Various people said the main characters’ names over and over while a running tally kept track. The grand total? 75 for Rose and 84 for Jack – way higher than it needed to be.

In real life, we don’t usually use the names of the people we’re talking to. Why would we? We both know who they are. Think about it. Not counting getting their attention, when is the last time you addressed someone by name in a conversation? Often the name is in there as a filler, or to remind the reader who the people are. Readers are smart people. They don’t need our help.

3. Teeth can’t talk

If you want to be taken seriously, never do this:

“Yes,” she smiled.

Smiling does not involve speech. I’ve seen this done with frowned, laughed, sighed, etc., even in published work. Just because you can get away with it doesn’t mean it’s right. Instead, say, “Yes”, she said with a smile.

4. You fail grammar for life

Guess what? We all do.

When I run into a foreign exchange student who learned English later in life, I sometimes notice that their speech sounds stilted or off – wrong, somehow. Here’s the thing. It’s actually right.

As a rule, we don’t use proper grammar. We don’t conjugate in past perfect or subjunctive tenses when we ought to. Characters shouldn’t either unless there’s a reason Casual speech is the norm.

5. Watch out for filler

Although sticking action in dialogue is good, the action should be real. I’ve caught myself repeating the same verbs over and over when I’m at a loss for what to write. A few common culprits: nodded, shrugged, smiled, blinked, laughed, and sighed. Make sure you don’t overuse them.

Now I need to get back to my editing and cut out a few more ‘said’s!

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7 Responses to “Dialogue No-No’s”

  1. Joe Pineda Says:

    Agreed. These are all great pointers to follow. Number 3 is really interesting because you see it in a lot of high-profile books and classics. My assumption is that writers who use that style of narrative take for granted that characters won’t, for example, mumble incoherently while grinning.

    As for tag overdose, there’s sometimes an even better solution: not using tags at all. Particularly if you have only two characters actively speaking in a scene, you can write an exchange of dialogue with no tags and people will know whose “turn” it is to speak. Mario Puzo did this a lot.

    • katblogger Says:

      Thanks for stopping by and liking my post!
      I do prefer that approach, but it has its drawbacks. I would often have readers complain that they couldn’t tell who was speaking where. As the writer, I failed to see when it would be confusing. The action method allows me to ensure that they know who is who.

      • Joe Pineda Says:

        Confusion does happen when it’s an overly long exchange. I try to write it like a waltz, where it’s line line pause, line line pause. That pause can be either an action by the character or a tag.

  2. I’m sitting here trying to tell myself to remember #3. If you have any advice on how to get your brain to hold memory like a flashdrive, do tell. 😉

  3. katblogger Says:

    @ Joe – That’s an interesting approach. I haven’t heard it before. I’ll try to keep it in mind.


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