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Dialogue has been my own writing nemesis and I continue to find it a challenge, although each day of writing seems to improve it slightly!
Today, author and blogger Ali Luke helps us with some basic dialogue mistakes and how to fix them.
Whether you love writing dialogue or dread it, you’ll probably agree it’s an essential part of fiction. Unless you’re writing an experimental short story, you’re going to need to include some dialogue – and it needs to be done just as well as the rest of your writing.
Dialogue has many roles in your story. It can:
- Reveal character
- Advance the plot
- Make characters seem real
- Give a sense of action unfolding
Dialogue is also easy and fast to read.
It breaks up the page, adding white space and making your story look more attractive. (If you’ve ever seen someone flicking through a novel in a bookstore, there’s a good chance they were looking to see how much narrative vs dialogue that novel contained.)
Unfortunately, dialogue is also easy to get wrong. Whether you’re a new writer or an established one, you’ll want to watch out for these mistakes.
(You can also look out for them in published books, too — plenty of pros still aren’t getting these right. If you come across a great what-not-to-do example, share it with us in the comments.)
Mistake #1: Being Too Formal
Even if you’re a stickler for the finer points of grammar in your prose, real people don’t talk like textbooks. They say things like:
- Me and him went to the shops.
- I dunno.
- If I was you…
Yes, we know that those should technically be:
- He and I went to the shops.
- I don’t know.
- If I were you…
…but most of your characters won’t always talk “correctly.”
There might well be circumstances where you want a character to speak in a precise, correct way – but that gives the reader some very clear signals about this character (perhaps they’re posh, trying very hard to get things right, or a little uptight).
On a similar point, characters shouldn’t speak in long, complicated sentences – or give long speeches. If you’re struggling to “hear” real dialogue as you write, try recording a conversation and listening to how people really talk.
Mistake #2: Being Too Realistic
Some authors, shying away from formality, go too far into making their dialogue real. They pepper every character’s sentences with “ums” and “ers” and hesitations. They have so many interruptions that it’s hard to figure out what’s going on.
This might be a perfect transcript of how real people talk all the time – but it will make your character sound incredibly indecisive and uncertain to your readers:
“Um, I don’t really know if – actually, yes – er, let’s go to the, the park.”
There will be occasions where you want a character to hesitate or fumble their words – but again, keep in mind the signals that this sends the reader. Is your character very nervous, or perhaps lying?
#3: Using Obtrusive Dialogue Tags
A dialogue tag is the little phrase that tells the reader who’s speaking, like this:
Some writers worry that using “he said” and “she said” all the time will get boring, so they start varying their dialogue tags:
In general, the simple tags are best – readers barely notice them, except to register who’s speaking. Stick with said, asked, answered and perhaps an occasional whispered, muttered or shouted.
If you do feel you’re overusing dialogue tags, an easy trick is to add a line of action to your dialogue, like this:
Sarah came running down the stairs. “I can’t find it anywhere!”
#4: Using Phonetic Spellings
If you have a character with a strong accent, you might be tempted to indicate this in every line of dialogue they speak.
Tread very lightly here. If you’re peppering your character’s speech with apostrophes and creative spellings, it’s going to make the reader’s life hard. It can also give the inadvertent and unfortunate impression that you’re looking down on or even mocking that character’s region, class background, or race.
Instead of writing words out phonetically, try using occasional dialect words, or unusual word order, to indicate a character’s speech patterns.
#5: Using Character's Names Too Often
In real life, we don’t tend to use other people’s names all that much when we’re talking to them – even if there are three or four people involved in the same conversation. We might say “Hi, Sue” when they arrive, or “It was great to meet you, John” when they leave – but we don’t use their name every time we address a remark or question towards them.
In fiction, though, you’ll sometimes find characters talking like this:
Hi, Amy. Is there much happening today?
Not much, John. Did you get those figures I needed?
Sorry, Amy, I forgot.
The conversation starts to sound odd and artificial – or even slightly patronizing towards one or both characters.
This problem sometimes arises when authors are trying to avoid using too many dialogue tags. In general, it’s much less intrusive to add in an extra dialogue tag than to constantly have characters addressing one another by name.
#6: Not Including Any Narrative
In #3, I mentioned that one way to avoid overdoing dialogue tags is to include action. You can also do this with a character’s thoughts, like this:
Julie couldn’t stand Mark, but she managed to fake a smile. “Hi. It’s lovely to see you again.”
Or with description, like this:
The pub was dimly lit, but now they were sitting down, Lucy could see the stains on the walls, and the deep scratches in the furniture. She cast around for something to say. “Do you come here often?”
Some writers, though, seem to get into “dialogue” mode and have line after line of dialogue, with no more support than a few dialogue tags. By blending in action and the viewpoint character’s thoughts – not necessarily every line, but at least occasionally – you can enhance the dialogue by adding new levels of meaning.
#7: Having Every Character Sound the Same
We all have different ways of speaking … but sometimes in fiction, authors make all their characters sound exactly alike. This might work if the story is set in a homogenous group – but it sounds silly if some of the characters are teens and others are grandparents.
For each character, you could think about:
- Any habitual phrases they use. You won’t want to overdo these, but they can be a useful way to cue the reader in that a particular character is speaking.
- What words they don’t use. Perhaps they never swear, preferring “Oh sugar!” or “Fiddlesticks!” Maybe they tend to avoid long or complicated words.
- How eloquent they are – or how taciturn they are. Some characters have a way with words; others don’t say much, or say it awkwardly when they do.
- How polite they are – or not! Do they make requests pleasantly, or do they order other characters around?
#8: Using Indirect Speech Poorly
Not all conversations in your story need to be spelled out in full. Sometimes, you’ll want to give the reader a quick summary – and you can do that with indirect speech. It looks like this:
Tom and Jonathan chatted for a while about the football game they’d seen last night. Beth, bored, went to get another drink.
This is a great way to let the reader know that a conversation is happening, without having to go into any detail.
One mistake here, of course, is to never use indirect dialogue at all, giving a blow-by-blow account of the football game that leaves the reader as bored as Beth. Some writers worry that “show, don’t tell” means they should avoid indirect dialogue – but that’s not the case.
Another problem, though, is when important conversations get summarized in this way:
George had a massive row with his mum, about that letter she’d had from school, and she told him that he was banned from using the X-Box until he’d got his homework done. He told her he hated her, and stormed off upstairs.
In this case, the words exchanged matter – the reader will want to judge whether George is being a horrible child or whether his mother has overreacted, for instance. It’s also a lot more dramatic to hear the words spoken, rather than just read a summary.
#9: Spelling Everything Out in the Narrative
Some writers worry that the reader won’t quite “get” the dialogue, and decide to spell things out, like this:
“I hate you!” George slammed the door and ran upstairs. He was furious with his mum – he felt that she was being unfair.
We don’t need the last sentence here: it’s obvious from what George says (“I hate you!”) and what he does (“George slammed the door and ran upstairs”) than he’s furious, and we can make a fair guess that he thinks his mum is being unfair.
When you spell out what’s happening like this, it’s irritating to the reader: they’re perfectly capable of understanding subtext, and picking up on small cues, to figure out the thoughts and emotions behind what a character says.
Of course, there will be some occasions where you do need to explain what a character is thinking – but this should be the exception, rather than the rule.
Are any of these nine mistakes ones that you know you’re probably making in your own writing?
(I suspect I’ve managed all nine at some point!) Do you have a tenth mistake to suggest? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Bio: Ali Luke is the author of Lycopolis, a novel, and Publishing E-Books For Dummies. As well as blogging about writing all around the web, she runs Writers’ Huddle, a community / teaching site for writers. The Huddle is packed with useful resources (with new ones added each month) and is suitable for complete beginners as well as advanced writers. The doors are only open for new members until 12th October, so if you’d like to take your writing to the next level, alongside other like-minded writers, check out the full details today.
Top image: people talking from BigStock