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Writing Contest Prep: Words from a Judge on DIALOGUE

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Good dialogue is hard to define, but bad dialogue is so easy to spot!

Suggested Reading:
Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella

Say What?
“Say What?” How Do You Say Hello?
“Say What?”–Uh, Um, Well, So, Wow, Great, Yeah, Really?
“Say What?”–Transcribed Dialogue Assignment
“Say What?”–Where Do I Put the Quotation Marks?
“Say What?”–A Delicate Balancing Act
“Say What?”–What Direction Is Your Dialogue Going?
“Say What?”–Dialogue Writing Assignment
Fun Friday–Favorite Movies/TV for Dialogue
“Say What?”–Is It Dialogue-Worthy?
“Say what?” she intoned incredulously.
“Say What?”–Subtexting
“Say What?”–Character Quirks & Non-Verbal Dialogue

Comments I’ve made on past entries:

Speaker attributions should be in the same paragraph as the dialogue. If the beat that follows the dialogue is NOT the introspection or action of the person who just spoke, it goes in a new paragraph.


Don’t have a character react to something before it’s been said (He turned toward her and was startled when she said . . .).


Where you do have dialogue, it’s well done. Unfortunately, your narrative-heavy opening overwhelms it. In this blog post, James Scott Bell wrote the following:

      Characters Alone, Thinking

      This was in the majority of the first pages I reviewed. We did not get a scene, which is a character in conflict with others in order to advance an agenda. We got, instead, the ruminations of the character as he/she reflects on something that just happened, or the state of his/her life at the moment, or some strong emotion. The author, in a mistaken attempt to establish reader sympathy with the character, gave us static information.

      Such a page is DOA, even if the character is “doing” something innocuous, like preparing breakfast:

        Marge Inersha tried to mix the pancake batter, but thoughts of Carl kept swirling in her head, taking her mind off breakfast and back to Tuesday, horrible Tuesday when the sheriff had served her with the divorce papers. Tears fell into the batter, but Marge was powerless to stop them. She put the mixing bowl on the counter and wiped her eyes. How much more could she take? With two kids sleeping upstairs?

      Marge is certainly hurting, but you know what? I don’t care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care that Marge is crying into her pancake batter. The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset.

      They won’t. It’s like sitting at a bar and guy next to you grabs your sleeve and immediately starts pouring out his troubles to you.

      Sorry, buddy, I don’t care. We all got troubles. What else is new?

      Don’t give us a character like that on page 1.

Don’t open with narrative that either takes place inside the character’s head and/or long paragraphs of exposition. Writing like that is static and lacks purpose, movement, and direction.


Put dialogue in the driver’s seat in scenes where you need to drive conflict. Make your character want something that she needs to get from another character. Will she just walk up and ask for it? Or will she commence in small talk first and then get around to asking for it? And how will the other character react to this request?

      “All good dialogue has direction. It’s a mishmash of needs and desire on the part of an individual character weighed against the tension inherent in the gathering of more than one person. . . . This is the stuff that fills the spaces between us, even when we don’t recognize it. As a writer, you have to learn to trust that it’s there” (Chiarella, 21).

In other words, make sure your dialogue has direction—that it’s leading both the characters and the readers toward more conflict, toward the rising tension of the main plot of the story.

If you have an action or introspection that follows the dialogue, you don’t need to use said/asked. (And it will also eliminate the unnecessary/repetitious use of “as” and “when.”)

Eliminate as many said/asked dialogue tags as possible. These types of dialogue tags get very old very quickly. Just as you want to look for ways to make your writing stronger when it comes to verb or adverb use, you want to make sure you’re not overusing any words, and that includes the words said and asked (or embellished tags such as shouted) even as dialogue tags. And the best way to do that is with action and/or introspection laced in with the dialogue.

Embellished dialogue tags—those using more descriptive verbs or, even worse, adverbs—come across as author intrusion. If your character has just explained something in dialogue, the reader knows it and doesn’t need a “she explained” tag. Same thing with “argued,” “elaborated,” or “confirmed.”

Elmore Leonard wrote: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb in this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”

Why are adverbs bad? Because, even more than the descriptive verbs, adverbs tell rather than show:

      “Say what?” she asked incredulously.
      “Say what?” Her eyes widened and jaw went slack.

If you feel you need to emphasize the incredulity or quickness or cheerfulness with which your character has said something, instead of adding an adverb, look at the dialogue and the surrounding narrative/introspection and do whatever you can to show the emotion/speed/whatever through the dialogue/narrative than through an adverb. If your character asks something “nervously,” show the nervousness through her body language or through the creepy-crawly feeling on the inside of her skin.


According to Tom Chiarella in Writing Dialogue:

      . . .the writer must never feel compelled to duplicate dialects simply for the sake of “authenticity.” The writer who thinks she is writing dialect because she is clipping the ends off of words and stretching out others is often taking delight more in her own experimentation than in any real sense of story. She may be shooting for a folksy charm or for root authenticity, but most often she fails miserably. Try all you want to make the words unrecognizable—misspell them, cut them in half, throw in a fistful of apostrophes, sound out every groan the character makes—the truth is, they are still words you’re dealing with. . . .

      There is no quicker way to fail, no quicker way to sell yourself short than to write unconvincing dialect. Your best intentions become mawkish charades. Readers are challenged not to live in your story, to get at the heart of what you have to say, but to “check” the loose strands of accent and spelling.

And from Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing:

      Spelling out pronunciations. . .is almost always a bad choice. I would also like to caution against a use of dialect in which speech is differentiated from the standard language by odd spellings. Though dialect was used quite extensively in earlier periods, today it is seen as a liability for several reasons. Dialect is annoying to the reader. It takes extra effort to derive the meaning of words on the page; that effort deters full involvement in the experience of a story. . . . Dialect is offensive to some readers. Moreover, people do not hear their own dialect or regional mode of speaking; only listeners from other communities hear it. That means you are reducing your potential audience by the employment of dialect. As a substitute for dialect use word order, omitted words, and other markers. . . .

Affecting “ethnicity” or “foreignness” through phonetic dialogue is the cheap way to do it—and, as these experts point out, is difficult for the reader (who must stop and read it aloud to figure out what it actually says) and keeps the reader from connecting with your character. A better way to use dialogue to brand your characters’ ethnicity, education, and place of origin is through diction—i.e., through the words you choose and how you string them together.

The dichotomy between the over-the-top descriptions and the “affluent” word choice in the narrative and the “low-country”/uneducated black-speak of the characters works against you—it’s such a jarring transition to see “walkin’ wid me” and “ackin’” and “gunna” and “yuh” throughout the dialogue and then to see words like eclectic and statuesque and en route and capacious in the narrative. In deep third-person POV (which is what romance should be written in), the narrative is the viewpoint character’s stream of consciousness—and should, therefore, be written in the character’s internal dialogue (though not in dialect!).


Where there is dialogue, it’s stiff and stilted, not the way that real people talk. But it’s all overwhelmed by the narrative. Additionally, the dialogue is actually coming across more as a device for you, the author, to get information across to the reader, not like people really interacting with each other—it’s the characters talking about things that happened in scenes you haven’t shown (but should).


Where you have dialogue, it’s okay. But it’s so overwhelmed by narrative summary that it’s hard to get a good feel for it.


Don’t use dialogue just to explain the Britspeak (the boot discussion toward the end of this entry). As a self-professed anglophile, she would know what all these terms are—but you can show the reader what they mean just by having the hero put the suitcases in the trunk of the car after saying he’s going to put them into the boot.

You need a lot less narrative and a lot more dialogue in your opening chapter. Two full pages of narrative, uninterrupted by dialogue, isn’t appealing to the reader’s eye, and it’s something most editors/agents will say makes them put down a manuscript unread.


Your dialogue is something of a “feed the reader information” device right now—and it’s overwhelmed, especially in the heroine’s scenes—by the amount of narrative. In opening chapters, it’s more important to have dialogue than it is to have deep introspection or long paragraphs of setting description.

Also, yes, we use “uh” and “um” a lot in our everyday speech. But it actually gets annoying to a reader.


Be careful about using dialogue to “tell” the reader information (about the setting, specifically in the statements at the council meeting). A key signal that you’re telling through dialogue is every time the character begins a statement with, “As you all already know . . .”


There are several places you’ve had the heroine “thinking out loud” as a substitute for genuine dialogue. Don’t. That comes across as amateurish writing. Delve deeper into POV and make things like that part of the character’s deep, internal stream of consciousness (the narrative)—or, better yet, give her a secondary character to say these things to in conversation. Where there is dialogue, it’s good, but it is somewhat overwhelmed by the narrative.


Most of the dialogue in the heroine’s scenes are used for the sole purpose of telling the reader information—either about the heroine and who she is or about what’s happened before that scene (after your time transition). The hero’s dialogue is stronger—but then there are scenes that should be dialogue and aren’t. (Prime example: telling the parents about their son’s death. Writing out the dialogue and visceral/emotional reactions of that scene would much more powerfully show who the hero is than anything you currently have about him in this excerpt.)


There is not a lot of emotion revealed through the dialogue, nor is dialogue used for subtexting—in other words, the character is thinking or feeling one thing but saying something else because she knows what’s expected of her.

Narrative is your key to subtexting, to making your dialogue even more dynamic, and to making your characters more credible and likable. The reader needs to know what the heroine is thinking and feeling as she interacts with others, especially with the hero and the ex-boyfriend.


The hero has a tendency to run-on a bit at the mouth. I’ve never known a man to ramble like this—even those I know who are particularly verbose.


Now it’s your turn to have a say. What questions/comments do you have on DIALOGUE?

  1. Saturday, March 3, 2012 12:31 am

    “The hero has a tendency to run-on a bit at the mouth. I’ve never known a man to ramble like this—even those I know who are particularly verbose.”

    This one irked me in a couple of (admittedly amateurish) romances I read. I also love how one writer believed the hero would notice the different types of flowers planted outside the heroine’s house. He wasn’t into anything horticultural in vocation or hobbies as I remember, so it’s unlikely he really would have known all of that. =)


  2. Wednesday, May 9, 2012 12:36 am

    What’s the deal with “no semicolons in dialogue?” Is this a hard and fast rule for all fiction?


    • Wednesday, May 9, 2012 6:48 am

      I use semicolons in dialogue when I write because they’re grammatically correct. I have one publisher who removed almost all of my semicolons—in narrative and dialogue—because they thought they looked pretentious to readers. Other houses I’ve both written and edited for are sticklers for correct punctuation. Where did you get that (wrong) advice?


      • Wednesday, May 9, 2012 4:41 pm

        I’m know I read it on the Net somewhere so it *must be true*. 😉
        Since the house I’m looking to submit to doesn’t specifically spurn them, I won’t freak out about them. (Phew)



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