My baby is starting to talk, you guys! She’s eleven months old, and now, when she says “mama” and “dada,” we think she actually means us. She also says “wawa” for water, “crack-crack” for cracker, and she knows how to wave and say “hi.” We’re also pretty sure that “a-goya-goya-goya” is her way of saying “tickle.” It’s pretty exciting.
So I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about speech lately and how characters speak in fiction. I’ve been thinking about the question: how do writers create good dialogue?
In my work as a manuscript consultant, I often come across the same kinds of dialogue mistakes. Here are ten common ones, as well as what to do about them.
1. Writing dialogue like it’s real speech.
But wait, don’t I want my dialogue to sound like real speech? Yes, you want it to sound like real speech, but you don’t want it to actually be the way people talk.
In real life, speech is filled with “uhs,” “ums,” “likes,” and tons of repetition. All of which can get annoying to read.
In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby says dialogue is, “highly selective language that sounds like it could be real.” It is, “always more intelligent, wittier, more metaphorical, and better argued than in real life.”
In other words, don’t worry about making your dialogue accurate. It only has to sound realistic to your readers’ ears.
2. Dialogue that has no purpose.
Dialogue should do one of the following:
- Advance the plot
- Reveal character
- Show conflict/tension
- Provide important information
Take a look at this dialogue:
“Hey, Mary,” John said.
“Oh, hi! How’re you?”
“I’m good. How’re you doing?”
“Fine. Good. A little tired, but who isn’t?”
Yawnsville, am I right? Yes, this dialogue sounds realistic, but it’s boring because there’s no purpose. The dialogue is not moving the plot along or telling us anything about John or Mary. It’s not showing tension or providing important information.
So you have two choices. Either cut out the “Hi, how are yous” and skip straight to the good stuff. Or, inject what might otherwise be boring, purposeless dialogue with meaning by adding interior thought and action. For example, here’s how I injected meaning into the boring dialogue from above:
“Hey, Mary,” John said, trying to make his voice sound pleasantly surprised instead of how he really felt, which was a combination of surprise, pitiful hope, and pure hatred. What was she doing here? He didn’t want to talk to her, but he had no choice. She was standing on the sidewalk in front of his apartment building like she’d been waiting all morning for him to come outside.
Maybe she had been. Maybe she had deleted his number from her phone and this was the only way she could get in touch with him. Maybe… No. He needed to stop his mind from going in that direction.
“Oh, hi!” she said, like she was surprised to see him. Like she didn’t even remember this was his apartment building. “How’re you?”
“I’m good. How’re you doing?”
“Fine. Good. A little tired, but who isn’t?” She laughed, and John felt the urge to punch her in the face. How could she stand there laughing? She was acting like they used to be neighbors instead of a happy (or so he thought) couple about to get engaged. And then Mary had broken it off without ever giving him a reason why.
See what I mean? Suddenly this drab conversation takes on a whole new meaning.
3. Not punctuating dialogue properly.
First of all, every time a different character speaks, start a new paragraph. Second of all, punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. For other dialogue mistakes related to punctuation and grammar, I created a table:
|Use a comma before the speaker tag.||“I love you.” she said.||“I love you,” she said.|
|Speaker tags are still part of the sentence and don’t need to be capitalized.||“What are you doing?” He asked.||“What are you doing?” he asked.|
|Use commas to insert a speaker tag into the middle of a sentence of dialogue.||“As you may know” he said “I just got out of jail.”||“As you may know,” he said, “I just got out of jail.”|
|You cannot laugh, sigh, snort, or chortle your words. Therefore these cannot be speaker tags. Write as a separate sentence.||“That’s ridiculous!” she laughed.||“That’s ridiculous!” She laughed.|
4. Using fancy speaker tags.
The only speaker tags I endorse are “said” and “asked.” They are unobtrusive and tend to fade into the background so that your dialogue can speak (ha, ha) for itself.
You can use other speaker tags when appropriate (“shouted,” “whispered,” “whined,” etc.), but stay away from “creative” speaker tags like, “uttered,” “proclaimed,” “mouthed,” etc. They can distract from your dialogue when a simple “said” will do the trick.
Furthermore, don’t crowd your speaker tags with adverbs like, “she said coyly,” or “he said angrily.” What the character is saying (along with their actions and body language) should be enough for readers to understand the way in which they are saying it.
5. Not making it clear who’s speaking.
Too many speaker tags can be annoying and repetitive, but too few, especially in a long, back-and-forth exchange, can make it difficult to know who is saying what.
Speaker tags aren’t the only way, however, to denote who’s speaking. You can also use action or internal thought in place of a speaker tag. For example:
|With Speaker Tags (Okay but not great):||Without Speaker Tags (Much better):|
|“What do you want now?” Nina asked as she stirred creamer into her mug of coffee with unnecessary force.
“Nothing,” Darrell said, wishing she’d hurry up with her morning caffeine fix so that she’d be in a better mood. “Well, not nothing exactly. Just one little favor.”
|“What do you want now?” Nina stirred creamer into her mug of coffee with unnecessary force.
“Nothing.” Darrell wished she’d hurry up with her morning caffeine fix so that she’d be in a better mood. “Well, not nothing exactly. Just one little favor.”
See how in the second column the character’s action or internal thought works in place of a speaker tag?
Just remember that if you include an action (or internal thought) after a line of dialogue, readers will automatically think the person doing the action is the person who said the line of dialogue. If that’s not the case, put the action in a new paragraph.
6. Going overboard with dialect, slang, profanity, or technical jargon.
When it comes to dialect, slang, and profanity, a little goes a long way. If you’re writing in dialect, use word choice, idioms, and sentence structure instead of changing the spelling of all your words. Lots of dialect spelling is distracting and hard to read. (Remember reading Huck Finn in high school? Mark Twain got away with it, but you won’t.)
Helping us “hear” the accent is great, but too many dialect markers will clutter up the prose, annoy your readers, and make your story difficult to read. If you’re writing in a southern dialect, for example, you DON’T need to drop the “g” from every single -ing verb.
Take this example from the short story “Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Conner in which the two characters discuss Parker’s tattoos:
“All that there,” the woman said, pointing to his arm, “is no better than what a fool Indian would do. It’s a heap of vanity.” She seemed to have found the word she wanted. “Vanity of vanities,” she said.
Well what the hell do I care what she thinks of it? Parker asked himself, but he was plainly bewildered. “I reckon you like one of these better than another anyway,” he said, dallying until he thought of something that would impress her.
He thrust the arm back at her. “Which you like best?”
“None of them,” she said, “but the chicken is not as bad as the rest.”
“What chicken?” Parker almost yelled.
She pointed to the eagle.
“That’s an eagle,” Parker said. “What fool would waste their time having a chicken put on themself?”
“What fool would have any of it?” the girl said and turned away.
Notice that in this exchange, no words are misspelled for the sake of dialect, and the dialogue is easy to read. O’Conner uses word choice (“fool,” “heap,” and “reckon”) and sentence structure (“which you like best?”) to help us hear the accent.
As for slang and profanity, use sparingly, and trust that your readers will “get” how your characters talk.
And when it comes to technical jargon — medical, military, scientific — just give us enough to make it seem plausible, not so much that your readers will get bored, confused, or overwhelmed.
For great dialogue that does slang, profanity, and/or dialect well check out:
- The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson(MG)
- Feed by M.T. Anderson(YA)
- Babylon Rolling by Amanda Boyden.
- Anything by Flannery O’Conner.
7. Dialogue that tells too much.
Avoid characters telling each other things they already know just because you need the reader to know. For example:
“As you know, Mother, I got married last year.”
“Yes, and as I recall you had cold feet and almost didn’t go through with it.”
“Yes, but you talked sense into me, and I’m glad you did.”
Find another way to get this information to your readers. Also avoid telling in dialogue something that you can (or will) show through action.
Finally, trust your readers. It’s okay to have dialogue with subtext. It’s okay to have dialogue that doesn’t spell everything out.
8. Dialogue that serves as a mouthpiece for your opinions.
It can be so tempting to put your character on a soapbox and use dialogue as a place to elaborate on your own political, philosophical, educational, or religious ideas. But unless there is a real purpose to it – a purpose within the story — it’s best to cut that sort of thing and save those thoughts for a personal essay or op-ed piece.
9. Dialogue in which all the characters sound the same.
A teenage character will speak differently than her grandpa. A young, hip New Yorker will speak differently than a middle-aged Midwesterner.
This should be obvious as far as dialogue mistakes go, but it’s much easier said than done to make your characters sound different. So pay attention to the way people talk around you. Hang out in a coffee shop or public park and do a little eavesdropping. Jot down phrases you overhear and the type of people who said them. You might even try listening to interviews on TV or the radio. Listening to books (such as through Audible) can also help you to understand the way people talk and the way writers capture it.
10. Not reading your dialogue out loud.
Sometimes dialogue is awkward or stilted. The cadence is off. It’s long-winded or too formal or just plain doesn’t sound right. The easiest way to see if your dialogue sounds realistic is to read it out loud. Or, even better, get someone else to read it out loud. It’s amazing how dialogue that seems fine when you read it on the computer screen suddenly sounds awkward when you hear it out loud.
For more tips on how to avoid dialogue mistakes, check out this post from The Better Novel Project.
Well, I better go. My baby is in her room calling out, “mama!”
What dialogue mistakes have you made, and how did you fix them?
What authors do you think write great dialogue? Share your thoughts!