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!