You’ve worked for months and months on your manuscript, edit after edit, until you think you’ve finally boiled your passion down into three hundred pages of gold. Then your readers finally get a chance to lose themselves in this new world you’ve created. They are experiencing everything as you’ve imagined…until the first character speaks. Suddenly, the illusion disappears in a vapor of smoke, and your readers are left with a ringing in their ears.
What went wrong?
The truth is, even the best writers struggle with dialogue sometimes. What we hear in our heads doesn’t always translate well to paper, and certain concessions need to be made to make it meld with the structure of the story while also placing a voice in the readers’ minds.
Here are five mistakes that you can avoid that will help your dialogue flow. Believe me, there are many more that can be made, so this is by no means a comprehensive list. But it’s a start.
People don’t really talk like that
Bob hadn’t seen Tom for three years. When you grew up on The Line, though, time was irrelevant. Enemies rose and fell every day between the long, straight rows of brick and glass stretching high into the hazy sky, but friendships were as solid as the apartment foundations. Nothing had changed between these two, now men far removed from the battlefield of adolescence, and the conversation easily picked up where it had left off.
“Hello, Tom. It has been a long time.”
“It sure has, Bob. How are you doing?”
“I am fine, Tom. Are you doing well, also, as I am?”
No, no, no, no, NO! People don’t talk like that! Certainly not two friends from a rough housing block that grew up together. Granted, this is a simplified illustration of what can go wrong, but sadly, I’ve read worse than this. Think about the relationships between the characters (all the more reason to do some serious character building [a coming future article!]) and their motivations. People say things all the time with winks and secrets, whether to cut the formal corners between friends, or an antagonist alluding to the protagonist’s demise.
What words would come out of your mouth if you met your best friend that you haven’t seen for three years? What about for your wife or husband that you just saw this morning? What do you want to tell your conniving boss after screwing you over on the Feldman account?
Write those exact words in your draft, then polish for the most basic grammar so that the meaning is clear, and move on. Add some narrative in the gaps so that the conversation has a point, and you’re on your way to throwing off your robot shackles.
He said, she said, he said…
Back to the story of Bob and Tom, who have now become human beings:
“I heard from Andie yesterday,” Bob said.
“At least she returns your calls,” Tom said. “I tried her number a couple of times before I came up for the funeral, but…” Tom said.
“Geez, Tom. You know she doesn’t blame you for leaving,” Bob said.
“It sure feels like it sometimes,” Tom said.
“You did what was right at the time. Nobody blames you, not unless they want a ham-sized fist in the mush,” Bob said.
Ugh! Once you’ve established the pattern, keep the tags to a minimum. If two people are speaking, introduce them with ‘he said, she said’ and then drop it. If the conversation makes sense, if the characters are playing their roles properly, then you don’t need to identify the speaker. Tags stop the action because they are additional information which must be read and deciphered, yet have nothing to do with the story.
Adding more characters makes things a little more difficult. Fortunately, you have a multitude of options. Here are two:
- Keep the conversation in a round
Tom said, Bob said, Andie said, then stick with it by making sure each character has a unique voice in the conversation. Add the tags back only when the order changes or the voice isn’t easily understood.
- Use narrative to indicate the speaker
“I know you’re never going to look at me the same way again. Not after I left you,” Tom said.
Andie’s gaze was fixed hard on the wet asphalt at the foot of her crumbling sidewalk stoop. “It wasn’t just me you left.”
“I know that.”
Even with multiple speakers, the dialogue automatically shifts to Tom and Andie, until a new tag is added. I didn’t need to say ‘Andie said.’ It was clear who was speaking. It’s cleaner, and your readers will love you for it.
Don’t try to rehash previous events or backstory to catch your readers up
There’s a time and place for backstory or history within the novel, and dialogue usually isn’t it. I’m not talking about what happened before the story begins; I mean restating something that happened in chapter thirteen to make sure your readers didn’t forget in chapter forty-four.
The main problem here is that most readers don’t just start reading in the middle of your book. If they do, then they will be lost, and so they should be. Shame on them. The readers you are writing for started at the beginning, so Bob doesn’t need to remind Tom on page 237:
“Thanks for coming up for Albert’s funeral. It really meant a lot, especially to Andie, after you left her to take care of her brother Albert, who had multiple sclerosis, all alone. I don’t know if she will forgive you for that, but there was no mistaking today that you cared a great deal for both of them.”
Don’t. If I sat through the 236 pages that came before, I should already know these things. Whether it was intended to be backstory or rehashing the plot, it needs to be much more delicate than that. You can feed the relevant pieces at key points in the story, offer up a long narrative before this scene, or devote a separate chapter to it. But don’t make your characters tell each other what is happening in their own story.
Adverbs are okay, sometimes
There’s a time and place for these, too, but the consensus is that they should be used sparingly, especially in dialogue. It is considered taboo to tag a quote with an adverb. But sometimes, deep down inside, you want your reader to really get the feel of how your protagonist responded to a threat. You could either precede or follow the quote with some narrative that paints the picture. But you run the risk of violating another rule, which I believe to be far more important – being too wordy when something simple will do. Don’t interrupt the flow of quick dialogue to explain implied meanings.
Consider the context of the quote and the pacing to know when an adverb is ok. When John Galt makes his famous address in Atlas Shrugged, you wouldn’t dream of ending fifty pages of heart-felt Objectivism with “…he said, vehemently.” But if your main character is introduced to the town madam with a tidbit of her history to go along with it, I’ll not bat an eye if you choose that he should respond with a simple “’I’m familiar with your work,’ he said knowingly.” There’s a bit of a smirk in there that the reader feels if you’ve set the scene beforehand. In the right setting, it says far more about what exactly he knows, and then some, without killing the dialogue with a pause to paint a picture of sly understanding.
Make sure the adverb stands on its own and adds to the statement, though. The reader has to know exactly what you mean and not be left guessing as to what “knowingly” means.
I’m sure I’ll be met with some opposition here, but think about this: I’ve been an avid reader for almost forty years now, and I never knew this was such a big deal until I started writing. I like a story because I like the story, not because I didn’t see any adverbial tags. Your readers care far less about this than other writers do. However, do use them sparingly and see if there isn’t a better way, first. Then, if it still feels right to you, go for it and don’t lose any sleep. If you’ve done everything else correctly up to this point, then I promise you will be forgiven.
You’ve gone phonetic
Everybody has an accent. If you think you don’t, it’s because you have the worst one and people that speak normally sound funny to you. That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to write everybody that has a slightly different accent than yours phonetically so that we can all laugh at how funny they sound.
This one is more of a pet peeve, so take it with a grain of salt. I am embracing the assumption, though, that most of the readers here are still getting their sea legs, so to speak, with the whole idea of writing stories for a living or even just for fun. The fact is most people trying to write phonetically for speech patterns overdo it to the point that it isn’t intelligible anymore. Remember lolcats? There was a time when the internet made cats the cutest icons of bad grammar and spelling. And then some people took it to the point that you couldn’t even read the captions anymore.
Not funny. Too much work.
Fiction in the hands of all but the masters runs that same risk.
When writing phonetically, think about these things:
1. Does the character provide a unique voice, where the accent or speech pattern is part of the charm, apart from all the other characters? Keehar, the bird from “Watership Down,” for example. His accent marked him as a foreigner to the rabbits of the warren, and it made sense creatively for a lot of reasons.
2. Does the speech pattern matter to the story. The broken English of an immigrant from the perspective of a hiring manager – from his point of view, having difficulty understanding the speech is important.
3. Don’t be grossly stereotypical unless bigotry or poor understanding is a particular trait of your point of view character.
4. Make sure you get the sound of the accent right, or else it will just read like a muddled passage of misspelled words. To quote from “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White: “Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.” It is better to be sparing and simplify for consistency than to overdo it and annoy your readers.
Hopefully, if you’ve been struggling with writing authentic-sounding dialogue, the above tips will help take some of the cringe out of your characters’ conversations. And if you already write great dialogue, then I hope that I’ve either given you something else to think about, or at least listed a few things that we are in agreement on. Either way, let me know your thoughts in the comments.
And if you are a reader that enjoys blogs about writing, let me know what dialogue faux pas irks you!