Nine NO’s of Dialogue

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

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:

1. Name-calling

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:

“What’s that?”

“A dress, Daddy.” She giggles.

“Says who?”

“Calvin Klein.”

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.”

 

  • Great article!! I can’t wait to share it on Twitter. Although I have to say, I’ve heard tip number one a million times (and I agree), and yet I see it happen in movies ALL THE TIME!! Why is that??

  • I think #1 is especially unavoidable in movies, because otherwise there is absolutely no other way to know the character’s name.

    Great list 😀

  • Great post and excellent tips, Gabriela! Looked back at my writing from when I was 16 and was awed (read: shocked and appalled) at all the “creative” dialogue tags I used back then. I think “zits” are my current issue, they have a tendency to slip in unnoticed but this post will be good reinforcement to watch for them. Thanks 🙂

  • I have to admit that my first drafts often suffer from the talking head syndrome. Setting is often hard for me to describe, because I always end up describing too much stuff that isn’t relevant or nothing at all about the setting.
    Another thing I would add to the exposition in dialogue part is when the characters sound like they’re sermonizing or when the conversations aren’t really about two or more characters interacting; they’re a series of monologues. I read a novel once that was pretty decent, except for the fact that the characters kept making these long speeches about other characters or about their ow nbehavior, which grated on my nerves. I found myself skipping over the speeches to see if anything interesting was going to happen next.

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  • Thanks for the great reminders. : )

  • Very well done points. I may add to this and refer back to this blog, good ones here!

  • Tinyfist

    These are great tips. The advice about tags can never be repeated enough.

    But your credibility suffers when you spell “volleys” with an apostrophe S, of all things,

  • Excellent piece. I’ll be saving/sharing this one.

  • I am SO glad I saw this on Twitter! Great advice which I’ll be sharing.

  • Good list. I find clunky exposition in dialogue particularly irksome; however, it’s often unavoidable and everybody does it — sparingly. The trick I think has to do with somehow making it both entertaining and revealing of character, not just past events. Elmore Leonard is a master at that.

  • Gabriela

    So glad this post could be of help!

    TinyFist–Thanks for catching that typo. Fixed now. Always good to have another set of eyes on a piece of writing, so I definitely appreciate when people catch these blips.

    Marion–Will have to check our some of Elmore Leonard’s work. Anything you’d recommend in particular?

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  • Have to disagree on a few points:
    4. On-the-nose-dialogue is presented as subtext. In screenwriting, “On the Nose” dialogue refers to dialogue that says too much. The point is to make the reader or audience work a bit for the information – not too much (we don’t want to frustrate them) – but enough for them to feel emotionally involved in your story.
    8. I totally disagree with your stance on ‘zits’. If you just want the reader to ‘read’ the dialogue lines, then fine, but if you want to suck the reader into the story, you must make the reader ‘hear’ the character as they speak.
    Excerpt from my historical fiction novel, “The Nations”:
    The Judge opened a desk drawer and began to sort out some official-looking papers.
    “We’ll be leavin’ for the Nations in a few minutes…Sir.”
    “Fine.”
    “Unless…” Jack started.
    “Yes?… Unless what?” the judge said as he looked up.
    “Uh… Unless… well, Judge… uh, Your Honor… Sir… I have been wondering… that is, we have been wondering… uh…”
    “Yes, yes?… Wondering what?”
    “Uh… Well, Sir… I, uh… that is… we…”
    Parker boomed out, “Well, confound it, Jack! Out with it man!”
    Bass and Jack both flinched at the Judge’s sudden outburst.

    If you removed all the hesitations and as you call them ‘zits’ you completely sterilize the moment. I write dialogue in novels exactly as I do in a screen or teleplay. Don’t tell the story to the reader, bring the reader into the story. Make them see, hear, feel, taste and smell what the characters do. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  • Gabriela

    Excellent points, Ken. For the on-the-nose dialogue, I think I may not have described it clearly enough in the post, but I think you and I are talking about the same thing. On-the-nose dialogue is when characters are saying exactly what they think. Like you said, the point is to make the reader work just hard enough to get to the heart of the information and if the dialogue is too on-the-nose it prevents that from happening.

    Your point about zits is a very good one. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, these aren’t the Nine Nevers of dialogue, just Nine No’s. They’re red flags… little flares to draw the writer’s attention and make sure he or she takes a second look at the passage. I think the place where dialogue zits get problematic is when they’re used out of habit, rather than to enhance the moment. For instance, my characters have a tendency to start every line of dialogue with “so” or “well.” I’ve edited enough of my own writing at this point to recognize that those are my “zits” so now whenever I see them, I know I have to give that dialogue a second look.

    That passage you posted is excellent. Thank you! It’s a perfect example of a scenario where dialogue “zits” are not zits at all but can enhance the dialogue. I’m always looking for examples where the Nine No’s are used well, so that passage will be super-helpful.

  • Looks like we’re talking from the same house, Gabriela. Just entered from different doors. I tend to look at writing like a character since I have 40 years under my belt as a professional actor/writer/director and acting coach. It’s like I tell my acting students: Know your story, create your character, lend the character your equipment (mind, body and voice), then get the hell out of the way and let the character tell the story. Let your instincts take over. I approach my novel writing the same way. I let the story write itself. Don’t do outlines. Don’t have a clue how it’s going to turn out. Let the characters figure it out.
    I tend to eliminate nouns in dialogue. One might write: “I’m going to town, do you need anything?”
    The actor in me writes: “Going to town, need anything?”
    In another recent novel “Return of the Starfighter”, I wrote:
    “Once we are south of the DMZ, we’ll begin a descent to pick up the tanker. I didn’t want our contrails to give us away.”
    “Good thinking. I’m allergic to visually guided SAMs…Give me a rash.”
    But, like I said, that’s the actor in me. That’s how that particular character talks.

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