Two Dialogue Death Sentences & How to Get a Stay-of-Execution
Kristen here, and we’ll continue our acrostic for VICTORY next post. I’m interrupting for a Writer Public Service Announcement. Great dialogue is paramount. Readers can overlook a lot of things if we have fabulous dialogue.
Dialogue can make or break a book. We can have the most brilliant story ever imagined in human history, but if the dialogue is weird, stilted, or redundant, that’s a good place for a bookmark.
As an editor, I can attest that this is one of the BIGGEST problem areas for the new writer. Dialogue can often sound stiff, like two kids playing with Barbies or fighting with action figures. Or, characters can become “talking heads” who all sound the same.
Great dialogue should give us a peek into the psyche of the character. We know we’ve done it properly when readers really don’t need tags (though use them where appropriate anyway for safe measure). When we nail dialogue, our characters can become so rich and vibrant the reader knows who’s speaking simply by the way they speak, what they say or even don’t say.
A fantastic example of this is J.E. Fishman’s latest book, “A Danger to Himself and Others.” Fishman did an astonishing job of characterization through superb dialogue. When I read this book, I always knew who was talking. This helped create characters so real and a world so rich, it drew me in and didn’t let go.
***I believe the Kindle version is free right now, so I recommend this book for a study in this area.
So, today to give you guys some quick tips on FAB dialogue, I have our WANA International instructor, Marcy Kennedy to guide you.
Take it away, Marcy!
In my years as a freelance editor, I’ve worked with clients all the way along the writing path—from newbies who are just starting their first book to seasoned veterans with multiple books on the market. I can now guess with a high level of accuracy where a writer is along the path based on the types of dialogue mistakes they’re making.
Newer writers tend to use creative dialogue tags or allow their characters to speak for paragraphs (or pages!) at a time without interruption. I once edited a novel where a character spoke for 63 pages solid. No joke.
But new level, new writing devil.
As writers gain experience in the craft and stop making the newbie mistakes, they run into a new dilemma. They’re told their writing still isn’t ready.
And one of these dialogue death sentences is probably playing a role in killing their chances at publication success.
Death Sentence #1 – Redundant Dialogue
Redundancy happens when we repeat something in our dialogue that we’ve already written in either narrative or action.
He shook his head. “No.”
Unless our character needs to add extra emphasis to their denial, the action or the dialogue alone is usually enough.
Let’s look at a sneakier example of redundancy.
Rob glanced at the clock on the wall. Three at last. Time for him to go. He popped his head into Joan’s office. “It’s three. I’m heading out. Want me to lock up?”
The redundancy here isn’t as exact as in the previous example, but it still makes for boring, flabby writing. We could tighten it to read…
Rob glanced at the clock on the wall. Three at last. He popped his head into Joan’s office. “I’m heading out. Want me to lock up?”
Redundancy can also happen big-picture. If, for example, we’re going to have a character cracking a safe, we don’t need to have them explain the whole process to another character before it happens. That makes it boring for the reader to then have to sit through the description of our character actually cracking the safe (even if something goes wrong).
We shouldn’t bore our readers to death by redundant dialogue.
Death Sentence #2 – Orphaned Dialogue
Any time we confuse the reader, it’s a bad thing because we destroy their immersion in the story. If we confuse them enough times, our book goes in the donate pile or gets deleted from their e-reader and they move on to someone else.
When it comes to writing dialogue, one of the most common crimes is to leave our dialogue orphaned, with no one to claim it.
This abandonment comes in two types.
(A) Dialogue where we’re not sure who’s speaking.
I suspect this usually happens because, as writers, we know exactly who’s speaking. We forget the reader can read only our words, not our minds.
If we have more than three lines of unattributed dialogue in a row (dialogue without a tag like said or an action beat), we can risk the reader losing track of who’s speaking.
If we have a scene with multiple speakers, we need to be certain it’s clear who each line of dialogue belongs to. An unattributed line of dialogue could belong to anyone present.
But the sneakiest of all is when we write about two characters in the same paragraph and then tack on a line of dialogue at the end.
Ellen waved her arm above her head, and Frank sprinted towards her. “I’ve missed you.”
Who said “I’ve missed you”? It could be Frank or it could be Ellen, and the reader has no way to tell which one it really is.
(B) Dialogue where we don’t find out until then end who’s speaking…and we probably guessed wrong about the speaker’s identity.
AVOID dialogue like this…
“We have come to witness our finest warriors compete. Scythia offers their best to us, so we offer them no less,” the queen said.
By the time the reader reaches the tag at the end, they’ll have consciously or subconsciously made an assumption about who’s speaking. If they guessed wrong, it throws them off balance.
When we have long passages of dialogue, it’s usually best to either begin with a beat, so readers know who’s talking before they start, or to place a beat or tag at the first natural pause.
“We have come to witness our finest warriors compete,” the queen said. “Scythia offers their best to us, so we offer them no less.”
Don’t leave dialogue abandoned on the side of the road. It’s just cruel.
Need More Help With Dialogue?
Check out my book How to Write Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide. In it you’ll learn how to format your dialogue, how to add variety to your dialogue so it’s not always “on the nose,” when you should use dialogue and when you shouldn’t, how to convey information through dialogue without falling prey to As-You-Know-Bob Syndrome, how to write dialogue unique to each of your characters, how to add tension to your dialogue, whether it’s ever okay to start a chapter with dialogue, ways to handle contractions (or the lack thereof) in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, and much more!
If you prefer live teaching, I’m running a webinar called Say What? Techniques for Making Your Dialogue Shine this Saturday, May 17th.
This 1.5 hour live webinar will…
* cover the seven most common mistakes when it comes to dialogue and how to fix them,
* explain how to ensure your dialogue makes your story stronger,
* show you how to create dialogue unique to your characters, and
* answer some of the most frustrating questions about dialogue such as how to handle dialect, should we use contractions in historical novels, science fiction, and fantasy, and is it okay to begin a book with dialogue.
As a bonus, all registrants receive an ebook copy of my book How to Write Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.
The webinar will be recorded and made available to registrants, so even if you can’t make it at the scheduled time, you can sign up and listen later at your convenience.