22 Sep

Technical Tips for Writing Dialogue

Posted in Craft, DIY MFA

Hi everyone, today we’re going interactive again.  Below is a piece of dialogue between iggi and me and your job is to find all the things that are wrong with the dialogue and make it NOT work.  When you think you have your answer, scroll down and read about some technical tips on how to make dialogue soar.

Here’s the dialogue sample.

“iggi, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.” Gabi said.
“What is it, Gabi?” iggi replied questioningly.
“Well, iggi, you know I’ve been working on this DIY MFA thing for some time, and I thought we should do a post about dialogue.” Gabi explained patiently.
“Gee, Gabi, that’s a great idea!!!!” iggi exclaimed eloquenty.
“So, what sorts of things do you think we should include in our post?”
“Hmmm…” iggi pondered.  “Maybe we could do an example of what NOT to do in dialogue, and let our readers try to guess.”
“Hey, that’s good!  I like it!” Gabi cried out.
“Let’s start writing, right away!”
And iggi and Gabi ran off to the computer to write the post.

All right everybody, now it’s your turn.  There are at least 7 different major types of dialogue problems in the above passage, though each problem may occur several times.  Once you think you’ve guessed all seven, scroll down to read the explanations.

1)  Name-calling:  Very rarely do people call each other by name when they’re speaking, but you’ll see it happen in written dialogue, especially if written by beginning writers.  The reason of course, is that using names in dialogue makes it very easy for the reader to figure out who’s saying what, especially if you’re writing a scene with more than two people speaking.  But this is not realistic, nor does it make for good dialogue, so cut out the name-calling.

2)  Exposition:  We’ve all seen those movies where the good guy faces off with the villain and the villain starts to monologue, explaining all the ins and outs of his diabolical plan.  That kind of exposition in dialogue rarely works because, again, people don’t talk that way.  If the information has to go in the scene so the reader can follow what’s going on, take the exposition out of the dialogue and just give it to the reader as straight exposition.  Here’s a hint: if a character says “as you know…” or “remember how…” or something to that effect, that’s a good tip that exposition is coming and you need to rework it.

3)  Fussy Tags:  Sometimes writers start getting all fancy with their dialogue tags, using words like “muttered” “cajoled” or “jeered” but these verbs do nothing more than call attention to themselves.  Sure, in general, writing thrives on strong verbs, but when writing dialogue tags, these fussy verbs just distract from what’s actually being said.  I prefer to keep my dialogue as mostly he said/she said with “asked” and “replied” tucked in there now and again.

4)  Ugh, Those Adverbs:  Seriously, writers need to stop adding adverbs to their dialogue tags.  Period.  Adverbs are bad enough in exposition, where they’re camouflaged by imagery and metaphor, but when they’re used in dialogue tags to express the speaker’s emotion, they stick out.  Granted, the adverbs in the above passage are a bit excessive even for an example of what not to do, but I made them especially bad to drive the point home of how awful these adverbs sound in dialogue tags.

5)  Dialogue Zits:  Words like “well” “so” “gee”  “ugh” and the like are what I call dialogue zits.  The description is exactly as it sounds.  These words blemish the complexion that is your dialogue and should be eradicated.  The only situation I think where these dialogue zits might suit a purpose is if they help establish a character’s verbal quirks in some way.  If your character really does use “like” every other word, then sprinkle it in now and again.  Remember: a little zit goes a long way.

6)  Talking Head Syndrome:  Some writers can get away with writing all dialogue, with no tags or stage directions.  These writers are the greats and they get away with it because they slip stage directions in with such subtlety that you barely realize they’re there.  The rest of us, must use stage directions in order to avoid having our characters come across as talking heads.  Stage directions are your friends.  If a character says “don’t worry about me, I’m fine” and then throws the remote control at the TV, we know right away that something is going on.  Use stage directions to create subtext and give your dialogue a context.

7)  Punk.  Choo.  Ay.  Shun.  Here it is for the record: how to punctuate standard dialogue.  Learn it, love it, live it.

“My name is Gabi,” she said.

When using a dialogue tag, a comma goes after “Gabi” but before the closed quote.  “She said” is not capitalized.  Period at the end of the tag.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

The same rule holds true when the piece of dialogue ends with a question mark.

“My name is Gabi.”  She ran her hand through her hair.

When including only a stage direction without a tag, put a period after “Gabi” and “She” is capitalized because it is the beginning of a new sentence.

For more information: visit Nathan Bransford’s recent post about writing dialogue.  I focused more on technical stuff here, but he gives some great insight into the big picture stuff, so go check it out.

Today’s Task:  Found any other problems with the above dialogue?  Seriously, there’s got to be more than just seven… Please share with everyone in the comments.


Comments on this post

  1. Stina Lindenblatt says:

    Great post, Gabi. I once critted a chapter that did every single mistake here. And I wasn't the first one to crit it.

    The name one was especially painful when there were only two characters, and the characters' names were also in the tag . . . just in case you didn't get who was speaking from the dialogue, which had the other character's name in it.

    1. M. says:

      *trying this again* 🙂

      I can proudly say I catch-and-fix myself when I am about to make such blunders! 🙂 Great post!!

      1. Colene says:

        Awesome post! I know when I started out I had forgotten SO MUCH from English class, like the whole comma after dialogue period thingy. This is going to help so many people!

        1. kathanink says:

          Good post! There were a couple I never even thought of, like Dialogue Zits – LOL…Another I jotted down was the overuse of exclamation points. I've heard it said they should be used rarely, if ever, in dialogue.

          1. Wannabe Writer says:

            I do one of these frequently…. *lowers her "talking head" in shame*

            1. Najela says:

              I always hated dialogue that was what we call "As you know Bob, so and so did this" but people don't do that. It's always been a pet peeve of mine.

              1. Natasha says:

                I love dialogue zits! Thanks for that.

                1. Carolina Valdez Miller says:

                  Oh my, I've made so many of these mistakes! Great breakdown for good dialogue!

                  1. Amie Kaufman says:

                    This is a great post, thanks so much–this is a great checklist to use in running through my work when editing. I've linked to this post from my blog today.

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