Adapted from Dialog by Gloria Kempton
“If a stranger were nearby, would he try to eavesdrop on the conversation? If the answer is no, don’t use the dialog.” –Gary Provost
Dialog is the words characters say aloud – anything put in quotes – and is one of three tools at a writer’s disposal to tell a story (along with Narrative and Action).
Dialog is important to writers because it advances the plot and develops characters and characters’ relationships. Dialog is important to reader’s because it engages their interest and helps them identify with characters.
Dialog is not (1) a forum for the author to inform the reader of details nor (2) idle chatter.
That said, there are several common mistakes writers make with dialog. I’ll cover informing the reader, with five situations, today:
1. As-You-Know: When characters say something they and the other characters already know
- Examples –
“Hey, remind me what that last case was about?”
“I’m going for a walk in Hyde Park, you know, that old park with the crumbling paths and the creepy graveyard.”
- Why it’s tempting – There are many details and you want the reader to know them.
- Why it’s bad – People don’t do this. Well, sometimes people do (the know-it-alls), but it’s usually annoying in real life – and, it’s annoying in writing, too.
- When it’s alright – Rarely; if there is a moment when one character would honestly, and interestingly, need to explain details to an uninformed character.
- Other options – Remove any details not needed for the plot and spread the rest out as little observations or comments along the way; be sneaky about it.
2. Direct Referencing: When a character says another characters name
- Examples –
“Hey, Isaac, how are you doing today?”
“Fine. How about you, Madison?”
- Why it’s tempting – Adds emphasis to a statement and remind the reader who the characters are.
- Why it’s bad – Apparently, people don’t do this very often (I noticed my characters were doing it about ten times as much as I do in real life). Not only that, overusing it has diminishing results – the emphasis is lost when it’s really needed.
- When it’s alright – When emphasis is needed – by the character saying it (not the writer). This often occurs when a character is trying to get someone’s attention, insinuating another’s guilt, or lying.
- Other options – Emphasize important dialog by writing it well (an important statement should speak for itself) and not cluttering it with less important dialog (edit out the unnecessary). Use well placed narrative tags and identifiers to name characters (John said, “Go.” Isaac scratched his hand nervously.)
3. Explanatory Tags: Anything replacing or modifying “said”
- Examples –
He shouted, “Get away!”
“How are you today?” She said demurely.
- Why it’s tempting – Spices up the dialog and conveys how something is said.
- Why it’s bad – If done too often, it can become noticeable (thus distracting and annoying). Also, it short-cuts more creative ways of conveying emotion and tone.
- When it’s alright – Here and there; some professionals say never, others say every few tags is alright. Try to only use explanatory tags when all other options are lacking.
- Other options – Let the dialog convey the desired emotion or tone (“Get away from me, now,” he said.) or, if the way something said is important enough, explain it with a narrative sentence (Her trembling voice rose from a low snarl of well-enunciated words to a frightful and inaudible screech).
4. Inappropriate Tags: Anything replacing or modifying “said” that isn’t a way of saying something
- Examples –
She nodded, “That’s right.”
“What do you want,” he sniffed.
- Why it’s tempting – Same as explanatory tags and adds action into the dialog.
- Why it’s bad – People don’t nod (sniff, smile, grin, laugh, jerk, etc.) words.
- When it’s alright – Never, I think.
- Other options – Specify how the action is related (She nodded then said, “That’s right.”) or separate it (She nodded. “That’s right.”). If the action and dialog happen at the same time, the action can be tagged on as a present participial phrase* (She said, “That’s right,” nodding.)
*Be careful with present participial phrases (defined for practical purposes as a verb ending in -ing); they can be confusing, especially when beginning a sentence (Walking across the room, she said, “Let’s go.”) In that example, if there are several people in the room, which person was walking is not immediately clear.
5. Perfect Grammar: When a character speaks too well
- Examples –
“I do not like whatever it is that you are doing,” she said.
“All will be well,” he replied.
- Why it’s tempting – Writing well requires an ingrained understanding of correct grammar; this essential of narrative and action easily bleeds into dialog.
- Why it’s bad – Dialog becomes stilted, stuffy, and unrealistic.
- When it’s alright – Some people do use perfect grammar (e.g a pretentious politician or a character from another time or place); this can be very effective in portraying such characters if done purposefully.
- Other options – Use contractions, slang, and half-words; feel free to write as sloppy as someone might speak. (“Whatever you’re doing, I don’t like it,” she said. “Chill out,” he replied.)
Next, I will cover dialog mistakes in the form of idle chatter.
Please feel free to comment below.
1) What do you think about using dialog to inform the reader?
2) Do you have any examples of when this is good or bad?
Thanks for reading!