There are nine things you should beware of when writing dialogue. I call these the “Nine NO’s” because they’re things that as a general rule writers should try to avoid. Notice, though, that these are not the “Nine Nevers” just Nine NO’s. That means that while you should try to avoid these things, you shouldn’t have to commit feats of verbal acrobatics in order to eliminate them completely.
There are some circumstances when these might actually be useful, the trouble is that writers tend to overuse them. Think of the Nine NO’s as little flags in your writing that merit a second look. If you catch yourself using one of them, look closer and see if you can work your way around it. If not, then that probably means that this NO happens to work in that situation.
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 to bad, Jill,” Bill replied. “Thanks for asking.”
While this technique might seem like a convenient way to establish who’s saying what, people don’t actually speak this way in real life. Name-calling smacks of distrust from the writer to the reader. It’s as though the writer is afraid the reader won’t be able to figure out who’s talking so to make sure that doesn’t happen, the writer inserts names into the dialogue. Instead of solving the problem, the dialogue ends up sounding clunky and stilted.
2. Fussy tags
Tags are the “he said, she said” part of dialogue. Remember back in elementary school, when your teacher taught a lesson on synonyms and made you list as many different variations on the word “said” as you could think of? Hate to break it to you but when it comes to writing good dialogue, your elementary school teacher was wrong.
What’s wrong with adding a little variety, you ask? Nothing in theory but a lot in practice. While some of these alternate “said” words might work in special situations (like if someone’s whispering, it can be useful to say “he whispered”) a lot of times, writers will use one of these words as if at random, just for the sake of switching things up. The beauty of using “said” is it doesn’t draw attention to itself. After a while, the tags just disappear into the background and the reader forgets about them altogether.
3. Talking-head syndrome
You’ve seen this before, I’m sure. The dialogue bounces back and forth between the characters and you have no idea where the characters are and why they’re talking in the first place. In fact, the characters seem to talk just for the sake of talking and there are no actions to ground us in the scene itself.
The solution? Add some stage directions. If speech is the part that’s spoken by the characters, then the stage directions are the actions that accompany those lines. Imagine the scene you’re writing is a play and you’re the director. You need to tell the characters when they should shift in their seats or sip their lattes. This can be especially useful if you want to convey to the reader that the character is feeling some emotion, but you don’t want the character to come right out and gush about their feelings. Remember, actions can speak much louder than words.
4. On-the-nose dialogue
Anyone who’s ever had a conversation knows that people rarely mean exactly what they say. It’s like that part in the movie Clueless where the daughter comes downstairs wearing an extremely revealing dress and this dialogue follows:
“A dress, Daddy.” She giggles.
On-the-nose dialogue is when characters say exactly what they mean. As we can see from the example, it’s far more interesting when characters force us to read between the lines.
If we look just at the words that are spoken, it seems like father is simply inquiring as to the couture his daughter happens to be wearing. Um, no. When he asks “What’s that?” what the father is really saying is “What on earth do you think you’re wearing?” The daughter’s response is as sweet as it is patronizing. When the dad responds in turn with “Says who?” he might as well be telling her to go upstairs and change her clothes, but instead she volleys back: “Calvin Klein.” Game. Set. Match. The dialogue itself consists of nine words, but it’s saying much more than just those words. It’s called subtext and it’s a good thing.
5. Rambling start
Usually when dialogue happens in real life, there’s a build up to the actual meat of it. People ask each other how they’re doing and “how ’bout that weather” and “waddayaknow about the Giants.” And then, after about ten minutes, one person comes out with the real reason they’re talking. This is how we’ve all been taught to behave because it’s polite and it’s what you do. But on the page, you don’t time for all that lead-up because you’ll lose your readers interest before you get to the good stuff. Instead, cut straight to where the dialogue gets interesting and start there. After all, wouldn’t you rather read a dialogue that starts with “Why the hell have you been sleeping with my husband?” than something like “Hey Sally, nice to see you.” Get to the good stuff as fast as you can.
6. Too many adverbs
I’ve talked about adverbs before when we discussed description. The same ideas are true here. Nouns and verbs give you vibrant language and adverbs often end up sounding too flowery and over-the-top. Nine times out of ten, when you see an adverb it usually means the verb isn’t specific enough. “He said softly” becomes much more specific when you say “he whispered.” Or better yet: “He said, his breath tickling her ear” or “He said, his voice sweet and smooth like syrup.” The word “softly” doesn’t give us a very good idea of who the character is or what his intentions are, but the other examples make the character and his actions much more vivid.
In the words of Strunk & White: “Do not dress up words by adding -ly to them, as if putting a hat on a horse.” Keep things simple and when you can, use vibrant nouns and verbs that capture your idea
7. Exposition in dialogue
This is when writers use dialogue to convey information to the reader rather than to have one character share information with another character. 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’s the one who made it happen. There is no reason for his buddy to tell him that in dialogue except that perhaps the writer needs to convey this valuable insight to the reader.
With the classic exception of a comic book villain giving the “this is why I tried to take over the world” monologue, there is really no reason to use exposition in dialogue. And even in the case of a comic book villain, this kind of exposition in dialogue is ridiculous. I mean, if you were trying to take over the world, wouldn’t you just do it, rather than wasting valuable time with some long monologue about why you’re doing it? Inevitably, that monologue is always the villain’s undoing because it gives the hero time to think of a plan and win.
Repeat after me: dialogue is communication between characters, not communication between writer and reader. Do not confuse the two.
8. Dialogue “zits”
In real life people say “um” and “so” and “well” but in fictional dialogue that stuff is just plain distracting. It’s like a big red zit on your dialogue’s nose, it doesn’t add anything to the picture and it’s nothing but a distraction. Zap those suckers whenever you can. Sure, you may have 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 that an author puts words in the character’s mouth, but those are words that the writer might say but the character would never actually say them. If you’re going to make your character use 10-dollar words, make sure that it fits the character’s personality.
Sometimes you can play this up for humor, like in the movie Catch Me If You Can when the protagonist is posing as a doctor. He’s been learning all the doctor lingo by watching hospital soap operas and on those shows the doctors are always asking each other if they “concur” with a diagnosis. So when the protagonist is playing doctor himself, he keeps asking the other doctors if they “concur” even though it’s obvious to the audience that he has no idea what anybody’s saying, much less what he’s concurring to. In this case, the fact that the character is using fancy language serves to underscore his ignorance about all the medical terminology that’s being thrown at him.
As I mentioned before, these are not the “Nine Nevers” of dialogue so if you have to break one of these “rules” every so often, it’s not the end of the world. Just be aware of these “Nine NO’s” and if you do use one or more of them in your writing, do it on purpose and not by accident, or worse yet out of laziness. Like my middle school band teacher used to say:
“If you’re gonna do it wrong, make it good and loud and wrong.”