Quick background: Today’s post is an expansion of a tweet I posted a few weeks ago as part of a mini-lesson for dialogue. It was part of a tutoring session on Twitter I run under #TimelyTutor. These quick lessons span the length of two or three tweets and give you a bite-sized writing lesson on topics that you can master in a few minutes. Check them out if you have a few minutes to spare @miraculiz.
Also, strictly speaking, it’s not a bad thing to be an amateur at anything. Amateurs bring a fresh perspective to a craft and are more open to challenging the expected norms. They exist in a constant state of learning and play–they can only get better. Masters, on the other hand, can sometimes be jaded and almost limited by the expected rules of their craft. However, for our purposes today, if you commit these dialogue mistakes, you run the risk of publishers potentially passing you over. Because the issue isn’t us breaking the rules in fun ways or offering an interesting perspective. These dialogue mistakes are more of a formatting/editing issue that any editor worth their salt would cross out.
So, onward! Here’s the tweets that started it all:
A few of you awesome readers asked if I could expand on this mini-lesson. So, without further ado: the dialogue advice that most people get wrong. And to show you that we all make this mistake at some point in time and that it’s nothing to be embarrassed by, I have included snippets from my old, writing from high school. I apologize in advance for how bad it is. But don’t worry, I won’t run off in shame. I’ll be here if you need me, and you definitely won’t find me hiding under the dining room table.
The faulty advice about writing dialogue
“Using ‘said’ is dull and repetitive.”
“You need to color up your dialogue or your readers will get bored.”
“Show your readers that you have a good word bank and liven up your dialogue.”
“You use ‘said’ too much—it distracted me.”
You’ve probably heard this dialogue advice and feedback before from a well-meaning writing buddy. And that’s something to remember—they meant well, and most importantly, they were on to something about critiquing your dialogue. Because chances are, there is a problem with it. Dialogue is hard and takes deliberate practice to master.
The real problem with dialogue
Your writing buddy knew something was off, but that something was not your use of “said,” per se.
The biggest issue I see with in my students’ written dialogue manifests in three major ways:
How they use dialogue tags themselves
“So, what?” dialogue that doesn’t serve any purpose
Trying to explicitly control how readers interpret dialogue by telling them how it goes down
Dialogue Tags: The words that precede or follow a string of dialogue. These tags clue readers in on which character is talking and what they’re doing as they speak.
“Put the cake on the counter,” Jacklyn said.
I wanted him to profess his undying love for me. Instead, he asked, “do you think they have turtles in Canada?”
Dialogue tags are necessary. But there are a few rules you need to know:
It is perfectly acceptable to use the word “said.”
Once you establish which characters are talking, you do NOT need to keep repeating “so-and-so said.”
Conversations are fast in real life. When you talk to someone do you constantly think, “she said,” before responding? Real conversations are a back-and-forth, so in written dialogue, readers are capable of understanding that characters take turns to speak. That said, if you have a dialogue between two characters that goes on for ages, it’s good manners to periodically mention who said what.
You don’t want your readers to question who’s speaking. Especially when your dialogue serves a purpose that’s integral to the whole plot. Think of how bad it would be if readers got confused and mistakenly believed that Jake confessed to murder when it was actually Mike who admitted his guilt, or whatever.
Now, an example from my high school writing:
This bit of writing was from a dialogue exercise from my freshman year in high school. I think the instructions for this exercise were that we had to write an entire scene using just dialogue and nothing else (not sure, though?). It looks like that—literally, it goes on for four pages of just sentences back-and-forth complaining about clearing out some dead trees in the backyard. You should thank me that I only shared a snippet from it.
In this example of writing, I see two of the three issues mentioned earlier that new writers have with dialogue. So, let’s break down everything that’s not-so-great about this piece:
(Discount the fact that this was clearly dialogue practice)
Dialogue Issue No. 1: Tags
1. The most noticeable problem is that there are only strings of dialogue in this scene. It is very rare to see back-and-forth conversations that go on this long in a novel.
Put on your Read-Like-A-Writer Glasses: Open a book and flip to a page with dialogue. If there are back-and-forth conversations like this in the book, you will see that the speakers only take a few turns talking at a time. There’s always some action to interrupt the flow of conversation so that readers can keep up with what’s going on. When you have sentences that are just spoken words that go on forever (like the example above), readers aren’t able to connect with the events happening in the scene, the characters, or the setting.
If I were to revise this, I could fix this issue in a few ways:
First, I could add imagery to the scene. A sentence placed in between the dialogue to break it up and paint a picture of the setting would improve this scene. I could mention that Vicky walked outside and saw her parents arguing under the shade of the trees. In between another line, I could write a few sentences about a cool, light breeze, or how the leaves cast dappled shadows across the ground—or something. That’s off the top of my head (it’s not my best—don’t judge).
2. The second thing wrong with this piece of writing is that there are no dialogue tags. You know how I said earlier that readers are smart enough to keep up with back-and-forth converstaions, and you don’t need to excessively add “said” to the end of every sentence? That’s true. Using the word “said” too much is redundant. BUT! It goes both ways—too little use of the word “said,” and you have a conversation where readers struggle to keep up and forget who is talking. The trick is in finding the balance between using tags and not using them at all.
Dialogue Issue No. 2: “So, what?” Dialogue
The third way I could fix my old high school writing is by cutting out entire strings of dialogue. Dialogue is a writing technique. It’s not (completely) there to add realism to a story. There are plenty of realistic stories that don’t even use dialogue. Dialogue serves the purpose of moving a story forward. If it does not contribute to the plot, build tension/conflict, or the development of characters, it is not serving a purpose and it’s pointless. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to cut it out. Run from pointless, idling dialogue like it’s the Plague.
For example, think of Harry Potter. There’s never a scene with idling dialogue. It always serves a purpose. Even those scenes when the Trio is in the Gryffindor Common Room relaxing by the fire, the conversation is never:
“Hi, Harry. How was your day?” Ron asked.
“Good, Ron. The weather is pretty lousy, though, ” said Harry.
That’s a pointless conversation that never happened because J.K. Rowling had the good sense to cut it out.
There is no formula for how often you should use “said” or for when you should forego the use of dialogue tags. A GOOD PRACTICE: Put on your Read-Like-A-Writer Glasses and study how other authors go about writing dialogue. What techniques do they use to break up long strings of dialogue? How often do they use the word “said”? When do they skip dialogue tags altogether?
Dialogue Issue No. 3: Don’t be a control freak
A dialogue tag mistake that I see many new writers make is that they try controlling how readers interpret dialogue by telling them how it goes down.
This is the biggest piece of problematic advice I see people give that new writers get stuck in. Well-meaning people tell new writers to “liven” up their dialogue and use their word bank/thesauruses.THE TRUTH: Using the dialogue tags, “he said,” “she said,” “it said,” “said Tony,” etc. is 96% of the time more acceptable than using other attributions. We, as new writers, are often told that it’s better to use phrases like, “she snarled,” “he bellowed,” “David whispered,” etc. AND it’s perfectly fine to sprinkle these here-and-there. But when every sentence describes exactly how a character speaks, it becomes a distraction to the reader. Your reader should be able to assume that David will whisper as he sneaks around the enemy’s army camp. You don’t need to end every string of dialogue reminding your reader that he’s trying to be quiet (unless it serves a purpose to rise the conflict of a scene, or something).
Remember: you can break all the writing rules if you know what you’re doing, you rebel, you. I’m only telling you about the typical standards and practices. Live your life how you want.
Example of me being a control freak as seen in my bad, high school writing:
Problems with this piece, and how I would fix them now:
I don’t remember when I wrote this or what it was for. But, I clearly had a thesaurus on my desk. None of those words, “bellowed,” “screeched,” “wailed,” etc. were necessary. My readers could have gotten the gist of the scene, by themselves, without me trying to control in minute detail how everyone spoke their words.
If I were to revise this piece of writing, I would first I would cut out the dialogue tags in a few of the lines. Then, I would edit out all but one-maybe-two of those extra dialogue tags. You, dear writer, could figure out that the little boy was out of breath and wheezing as he tried to talk while running away without me telling you. You have a brain. You’re capable of making connections and visualizing things on your own. The same is true with your readers. You do not need to hold their hand. Let them come to their own conclusions and realize the world you create on their own. Using too many of those extra dialogue tags are a distraction that take away from the scene. An over reliance on those types of dialogue tags are a chance for your reader to remember that they are reading a book. You don’t want your writing to sound too much like writing (if that makes sense) because then your reader cannot fully immerse themselves into the story.
Those are the three biggest dialogue issues I notice when I look over new writers’ work. They’re all super-easy fixes. And as seen from my lousy writing from high school, we all make these mistakes. Writing is a constant learning practice. It’s okay to make these mistakes, so long as you recognize them and fix them up in your revisions. I promise the more lousy writing you write, the more times you make these mistakes, the more times you edit them out, the better you get at avoiding these issues.
I know I keep reminding you that the examples used in this post were from my “lousy,” “bad,” “old” writing, but the truth is that I’m not embarrassed by this writing. I’m not proud of the writing itself, but I am proud of my growth. Whenever I see my old stuff, it gives me the chance to realize how much I’ve grown as a writer. Because it gives me a chance to see how bad I once was. So, don’t let your writing mistakes embarrass you. The fact that you recognize that it was a mistake shows your own growth. Be proud of how far you’ve come.
If you want more access to #TimelyTutor, follow me on Twitter @miraculiz. Also, every Tuesday on the Write Whale Facebook Group is Tutor Tuesday where you can ask any questions about writing that pop into your head and we’ll all try to answer them throughout the day. You can also post any questions any day of the week on the Facebook Group, if you can’t wait until Tuesday. Do what you want, you reckless, beautiful animal.