Two Dialogue Death Sentences & How to Get a Stay-of-Execution

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Peter Dutton

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Peter Dutton

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.

Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.


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.

Click here to sign up for Say What? Techniques for Making Your Dialogue Shine.


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  1. Thank you Ms. Kristen and Ms. Marcy for the lovely article! I picked up both books and will use them judiciously! 😉

  2. Great article ladies. I laughed because I’ve been guilty of them all. 🙂 Thanks for the dialogue resources!

    1. I think we’ve all been guilty of these crimes at some point 🙂

  3. What a great post. Simple things like that really do make or break dialogue. A story rides on dialogue and I’ve recently read too many examples that were poorly written.

    Being in the UK it may be tricky to make that webinar, but I’m really hoping to. I like writing dialogue – one of my favourite things – but I’m always keen to learn more. Maybe I’ll catch you in the virtual classroom, Marcy. 🙂

  4. Great article! Nothing worse than a confused reader.

  5. Oh, and I also want to say, this is the ONLY blog that, upon reading, I will immediately go off and find any recommended texts (if relevant to something I’m working on).
    Heh… I trust you that much, Kristen! 😉


  6. An excellent post. Thank you, Marcy. 🙂

  7. Thanks for the recommendation. I grabbed up a copy of your dialogue book Marcy 🙂 Love your blog Kristin. I know if you say something is good and worth having, it is!

    1. That makes me feel AWESOME. I do try to only recommend stuff I like and I am VERY picky. Hope it blesses you!

  8. Thank you so much for explaining so clearly something I know about, but struggle to explain to others. Shared on my FB timeline so that I can look at it again. xx 🙂

  9. Solid dialog advice. I tend to avoid dialog tags, so I know I’ve Orphaned my dialog from time to time. a great thing to look out for in the rewrites.

  10. Read the dialogue aloud. Your ear knows what sounds off. Of course, I’m reading my whole novel aloud on this round of revisions and finding all sorta of weaknesses in the writing.
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Marcy.

  11. I am trying to anchor the dialog in who the character is. I discovered this the hard way. I had characters babbling on without any idea who they really were. Silent

    • tammyjpalmer on May 13, 2014 at 9:57 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve set aside many books due to redundant dialogue. Talking is what makes characters come to life—or die on the page. Good advice.

  12. Reblogged this on Theo Fenraven and commented:
    I’ve been saying this for a long time.

  13. Nothing worse than going down a page of dialogue going “he says, she says, he says, she says – right, so that’s him speaking! Funny – doesn’t really sound like him” and then wondering if the writer lost track of it too!

    • sao on May 14, 2014 at 2:03 am
    • Reply

    Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel was the most egregious example of dialogue orphans I’ve ever read and the thing won a prize.

    Ideally, in a two person dialogue, your reader should be able to tell who’s speaking without tags, just by characterization, but obviously, even prize-winning authors can miss.

  14. I am knee deep in editing and this gave me a great reminder of things to keep an eye out for. Thanks.

  15. Loved the illustration. I can emphasize with the guy in the stocks. But in my case no one notices that I am burning and that adds to my ego being burst and the contents dribbling down my face.

  16. So true. And it’s difficult to get right, too! I find myself reading and reading my dialogue, aloud and in my head, listening to others read it, etc. etc. and I always find something to change. As a writer, sometimes we are never happy! But when it’s right, you know it! Good post! Thanks!
    Davey Northcott
    ‘The Path Through the Eye of Another’

  17. Iris Murdoch sometimes started novels with dialogue only, no indication of speakers: we got to know them later. This trick needs to be well done.

  18. Thank you for the heads up on the free copy of A Danger to Himself and Others. I am a newbie but this is one area I’ve been careful about. Still, I’m sure the book will show me even more ways to avoid the pitfalls.

    • Tamara LeBlanc on May 14, 2014 at 11:08 am
    • Reply

    Love this!
    Snappy dialogue always keeps me reading, and wanting to inhale more of the author’s work to boot! Hopefully my stories have that quality, but if I’m lacking, your book Marcy, and your wisdom, Kristen will help me get er done right!
    Thanks so much ladies!!
    Have a great afternoon,

    • Stephanie Scott on May 14, 2014 at 12:00 pm
    • Reply

    I’m still learning to weed out redundancies in my work. That’s a tough one! I love books with great dialogue. It’s really something that needs a lot of attention and not easy to do.

  19. Great tutorial on cleaning up dialogue. Thanks for your insight as always.

  20. Reblogged this on remnantscc and commented:
    Great tutorial on how to clean up and organize dialogue that has grown redundant or confusing.

  21. Reblogged this on Kentucky Mountain Girl News.

  22. I really liked the examples that were given. It was plain to see how annoying such things are to a reader and really quite easy to fix once the problem is recognized. Thank You Kristen and Marcy.

  23. Thanks for the advice! It’d be interesting to see a post on stories/genres that editors don’t see enough of.

    I see a lot of posts about ‘too many vampires’ or ‘too much pregnancy horror,’ but it’d be interesting to see where there’s ‘not enough of.’ I’m sure it varies for every editor, but I’m also sure there’s trends or areas that you’re surprised are being bypassed or have fallen out of of favor.

  24. Very helpful! I know I need to hone my flabby dialogue, so these are great tips.

  25. Great dialogue is hard to find, but can be achieved in writing! Great tutorial on how dialogue effects scenes. A lot of great scenes include great dialogue. A line of dialogue has to either show character or move the plot forward. Every line of dialogue in a novel that doesn’t do one of those things should be cut. So another way to have a great scene is to have effective dialogue.

  26. I think this is a very helpful and well written article. Thank you for sharing it!

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