Guest blog by Gabriela Pereira
Of all aspects of the writing craft, dialogue is by far my favorite. Maybe it’s because dialogue makes me feel like I’m in the scene with the characters or lets me see their dynamic personalities bounce off each other. Or maybe it’s just because I’m impatient and don’t like to weed through pages of boring description.
Whatever the reason, I always look forward to dialogue passages… except when the dialogue is bad. Because to paraphrase from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, when dialogue is bad it is horrid.
The good news is that there are a few easy ways to fix less-than-stellar dialogue. I call these the “Nine NO’s”—as opposed to the “Nine Nevers”—because while these are things that writers should try to avoid, they are not hard and fast rules. You should not have to commit verbal acrobatics in order to eliminate them from your writing completely.
Here are the Nine No’s of Dialogue:
Name-calling is when characters call each other by name in dialogue. For example:
“So Bill, how’s everything going?” Jill asked.
“Not too bad, Jill,” Bill replied. “Thanks for asking.”
While this tactic might seem like a convenient way to establish who is saying what, it also sounds terrible and people don’t speak this way in real conversations. Name-calling smacks of distrust—as though the writer is afraid the reader won’t figure out who’s talking—but instead of solving the problem, name-calling only makes the dialogue sound clunky and stilted.
2. Fussy Tags
Tags are the “he said, she said” part of dialogue. In other words, if you want to establish which character is talking, tags are the way to do it. The problem arises when writers get a carried away with tags, using words like cajoled, reiterated, or guffawed. Have you ever heard someone “guffaw” a line of dialogue? Didn’t think so.
When in doubt, use “said” because it blends into the background and doesn’t draw attention to itself. tags like “asked” or “replied” are also okay in moderation. But for the love of all that is literary, do not use fancy tags at random, just for the sake of switching things up. Fussy tags steal attention away from the important part of the dialogue: what the characters are saying.
3. Talking-Head Syndrome
Sometimes writers go to the opposite extreme, crafting dialogue that bounces back and forth between characters like a pingpong ball. When this happens, the reader has no idea where the characters are, or they’re even talking in the first place.
I call this Talking-Head Syndrome and the solution is simple:
Add stage directions.
If dialogue is the part that’s spoken by the characters, then stage directions are the actions that accompany those lines. Imagine the scene you’re writing is part of a play and you are the director. You need to tell the characters when to clear their throats, sip their tea, or grab the gun from the mantelpiece and pull the trigger.
Stage directions are especially useful if you want to create subtext. When a character’s actions contradict what he’s saying, that gives the reader a window into what the character is thinking or feeling. Remember, actions can speak much louder than words.
4. On-the-Nose Dialogue
On-the-nose dialogue is when people say exactly what they mean. This, of course, never happens in real life. Take for example that scene in the movie Clueless where the protagonist, Cher, comes downstairs wearing a revealing dress. This is the exchange she has with her father:
“A dress, Daddy.” She giggles.
If we take the dialogue literally, it seems like the father is asking his daughter about the outfit she is wearing. The truth is, this conversation has very little to do with couture and everything to do with the father-daughter relationship.
When he asks “What’s that?” Cher’s father is really saying “What on earth do you think you’re wearing?” But the subtext doesn’t end there.
Cher’s response is as sweet as it is patronizing, and when her dad responds with “Says who?” he might as well be telling her to go upstairs and change her clothes. Instead, she volleys back with a roll of the eyes and the words: “Calvin Klein.”
Game. Set. Match.
The dialogue itself consists of nine words, but it says so much more. This scene would be far less interesting—and less funny—if the characters say what they actually mean.
5. Rambling Start
In real life dialogue, people usually build up toward the heart of the conversation. They ask each other how they’re doing or comment about the weather, because that’s the polite thing to do. It might take several minutes until one of the speakers gets to the real reason for the conversation.
You don’t have time for small talk on the page. If you waste words on a rambling start, you risk losing your readers before you get to the good stuff. Skip to where the dialogue gets interesting and start there. Wouldn’t you rather read a passage that starts with “Why the hell have you been sleeping with my husband?” than something like “Hey Sally, nice to see you”? Forget the lead-up and get to the juicy stuff.
6. Adverb Overload
Nouns and verbs are the “meat and potatoes” of vibrant language. Adverbs are a condiment: a little goes a long way. This is especially true with dialogue.
Adverb overload is often a sign that you are not choosing the right verbs. If a verb is pulling its weight, you shouldn’t have to qualify it with an adverb. “He said softly” becomes much more specific when you say “He said, his breath tickling her ear” or “He said, his voice like syrup.” The word softly doesn’t convey who the character is or what his intentions are, but when you add the stage directions, suddenly the character comes to life. In the words of Strunk & White: “Do not dress up words by adding -ly to them, as if putting a hat on a horse.”
7. Exposition in Dialogue
Sometimes, writers use dialogue to convey information to the reader. Remember, the conversation is between the characters and the reader is just a casual observer. Suppose one character says to another: “Dude, you’ve failed all your classes two semesters in a row. Your parents are gonna have a cow.” Clearly Dude knows that he’s failed his classes two semesters in a row. He was there. He made it happen. The only reason for his buddy to tell him that in dialogue is because the writer needs to convey this valuable insight to the reader.
We see exposition in dialogue all the time—the comic book villain gives the “this is why I tried to take over the world” monologue, or a mentor character shows up just in time to give the protagonist a pep talk—but just because writers use this device doesn’t mean it works.
Repeat after me: dialogue is communication between characters, not communication between the writer and reader. Unless the character receiving the information doesn’t already know it, find another way to convey it to your reader.
8. Dialogue Blips
In real life people insert blips into dialogue like “um,” “so,” and “well.” They do this to give themselves time to think of what they’re going to say. But in fictional dialogue you have all the time in the world to figure out what the characters will say. These blips are not only unnecessary but also distracting. These hems and haws are the equivalent of red zits on your dialogue’s nose. They might seem insignificant, but they’ll distract readers so much they won’t see anything else. distraction. Sure, there may be the occasional situation where a “well” or a “hmm” or some other such blip might come in handy, but if you find your characters are leaning on these words too much, get rid of them pronto.
9. Breaking Character
Perhaps one of the biggest problems in dialogue is when a character says something that is out of character. This often happens because the writer is putting words in the character’s mouth that the character would never say. Does the character talk as though she’s memorized the dictionary, or does he simple slang?
Sometimes you can use the contrast between the character and the out-of-character dialogue for humor. Consider for example the movie Catch Me If You Can when con artist Frank Abagnale is posing as a doctor and tries to master doctor lingo by watching hospital soap operas. On those shows the doctors are always asking each other if they “concur” with a diagnosis, so when Frank finds himself having to impersonate a doctor, he keeps asking the other doctors if they “concur” even though it’s obvious to the audience that he has no idea what anybody is saying, much less what he’s concurring to. In this situation, the character’s fancy language underscores his ignorance about all the medical terminology being thrown at him.
Putting It All Together
In the end, these “rules” are not etched in stone and if you need to break one now and then, do it. Think of the Nine No’s as being like signal flares, telling you when to give a passage of dialogue a second look. If you need to use one of these Nine No’s, do it with intention rather than by accident or—worse yet—out of laziness. Like my middle school band teacher used to say:
“If you’re gonna play it wrong, make it good and loud and wrong.”
Gabriela Pereira is a writer, speaker, and self-proclaimed word nerd who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower writers to take an entrepreneurial approach to their professional growth. Gabriela earned her MFA in creative writing from The New School and teaches at national conferences, regional workshops, and online. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and publishing experts. Her book DIY MFA: WRITE WITH FOCUS, READ WITH PURPOSE, BUILD YOUR COMMUNITY is out now from Writer’s Digest Books. To connect with Gabriela, join the word nerd crew, and get a free DIY MFA starter kit, go to: DIYMFA.com/join.