How to Write Dazzling Dialogue

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Guest blog by Gabriela Periera

Of all aspects of the writing craft, dialogue is by far my favorite. Maybe it’s because dialogue makes me feel like I’m in the scene with the characters or lets me see their dynamic personalities bounce off each other. Or maybe it’s just because I’m impatient and don’t like to weed through pages of boring description.

Whatever the reason, I always look forward to dialogue passages… except when the dialogue is bad. Because to paraphrase from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, when dialogue is bad it is horrid.

The good news is that there are a few easy ways to fix less-than-stellar dialogue. I call these the “Nine NO’s”—as opposed to the “Nine Nevers”—because while these are things that writers should try to avoid, they are not hard and fast rules. You should not have to commit verbal acrobatics in order eliminate them from your writing completely.

Here are the Nine No’s of Dialogue:

1. Name-Calling

Name-calling is when characters call each other by name in dialogue. For example:

“So Bill, how’s everything going?” Jill asked.

“Not too bad, Jill,” Bill replied.  “Thanks for asking.”

While this tactic might seem like a convenient way to establish who is saying what, it also sounds terrible and people don’t speak this way in real conversations. Name-calling smacks of distrust—as though the writer is afraid the reader won’t figure out who’s talking—but instead of solving the problem, name-calling only makes the dialogue sound clunky and stilted.

2. Fussy Tags

Tags are the “he said, she said” part of dialogue. In other words, if you want to establish which character is talking, tags are the way to do it. The problem arises when writers get a carried away with tags, using words like cajoled, reiterated, or guffawed. Have you ever heard someone “guffaw” a line of dialogue? Didn’t think so.

When in doubt, use “said” because it blends into the background and doesn’t draw attention to itself. tags like “asked” or “replied” are also okay in moderation. But for the love of all that is literary, do not use fancy tags at random, just for the sake of switching things up. Fussy tags steal attention away from the important part of the dialogue: what the characters are saying.

3. Talking-Head Syndrome

Sometimes writers go to the opposite extreme, crafting dialogue that bounces back and forth between characters like a pingpong ball. When this happens, the reader has no idea where the characters are, or they’re even talking in the first place.

I call this Talking-Head Syndrome and the solution is simple:

Add stage directions.

If dialogue is the part that’s spoken by the characters, then stage directions are the actions that accompany those lines.  Imagine the scene you’re writing is part of a play and you are the director. You need to tell the characters when to clear their throats, sip their tea, or grab the gun from the mantelpiece and pull the trigger.

Stage directions are especially useful if you want to create subtext. When a character’s actions contradict what he’s saying, that gives the reader a window into what the character is thinking or feeling. Remember, actions can speak much louder than words.

4. On-the-Nose Dialogue

On-the-nose dialogue is when people say exactly what they mean. This, of course, never happens in real life. Take for example that scene in the movie Clueless where the protagonist, Cher, comes downstairs wearing a revealing dress. This is the exchange she has with her father:

“What’s that?”

“A dress, Daddy.” She giggles.

“Says who?”

“Calvin Klein.”

If we take the dialogue literally, it seems like the father is asking his daughter about the outfit she is wearing. The truth is, this conversation has very little to do with couture and everything to do with the father-daughter relationship.

When he asks “What’s that?” Cher’s father is really saying “What on earth do you think you’re wearing?” But the subtext doesn’t end there.

Cher’s response is as sweet as it is patronizing, and when her dad responds with “Says who?” he might as well be telling her to go upstairs and change her clothes. Instead, she volleys back with a roll of the eyes and the words: “Calvin Klein.”

Game. Set. Match.

The dialogue itself consists of nine words, but it says so much more. This scene would be far less interesting—and less funny—if the characters say what they actually mean.

5. Rambling Start

In real life dialogue, people usually build up toward the heart of the conversation. They ask each other how they’re doing or comment about the weather, because that’s the polite thing to do. It might take several minutes until one of the speakers gets to the real reason for the conversation.

You don’t have time for small talk on the page. If you waste words on a rambling start, you risk losing your readers before you get to the good stuff. Skip to where the dialogue gets interesting and start there. Wouldn’t you rather read a passage that starts with “Why the hell have you been sleeping with my husband?” than something like “Hey Sally, nice to see you”? Forget the lead-up and get to the juicy stuff.

6. Adverb Overload

Nouns and verbs are the “meat and potatoes” of vibrant language. Adverbs are a condiment: a little goes a long way. This is especially true with dialogue.

Adverb overload is often a sign that you are not choosing the right verbs. If a verb is pulling its weight, you shouldn’t have to qualify it with an adverb. “He said softly” becomes much more specific when you say “He said, his breath tickling her ear” or “He said, his voice like syrup.” The word softly doesn’t convey who the character is or what his intentions are, but when you add the stage directions, suddenly the character comes to life. In the words of Strunk & White: “Do not dress up words by adding -ly to them, as if putting a hat on a horse.”

7. Exposition in Dialogue

Sometimes, writers use dialogue to convey information to the reader. Remember, the conversation is between the characters and the reader is just a casual observer. Suppose one character says to another: “Dude, you’ve failed all your classes two semesters in a row. Your parents are gonna have a cow.” Clearly Dude knows that he’s failed his classes two semesters in a row. He was there. He made it happen. The only reason for his buddy to tell him that in dialogue is because the writer needs to convey this valuable insight to the reader.

We see exposition in dialogue all the time—the comic book villain gives the “this is why I tried to take over the world” monologue, or a mentor character shows up just in time to give the protagonist a pep talk—but just because writers use this device doesn’t mean it works.

Repeat after me: dialogue is communication between characters, not communication between the writer and reader. Unless the character receiving the information doesn’t already know it, find another way to convey it to your reader.

8. Dialogue Blips

In real life people insert blips into dialogue like “um,” “so,” and “well.” They do this to give themselves time to think of what they’re going to say. But in fictional dialogue you have all the time in the world to figure out what the characters will say. These blips are not only unnecessary but also distracting. These hems and haws are the equivalent of red zits on your dialogue’s nose. They might seem insignificant, but they’ll distract readers so much they won’t see anything else. distraction. Sure, there may be the occasional situation where a “well” or a “hmm” or some other such blip might come in handy, but if you find your characters are leaning on these words too much, get rid of them pronto.

9. Breaking Character

Perhaps one of the biggest problems in dialogue is when a character says something that is out of character. This often happens because the writer is putting words in the character’s mouth that the character would never say. Does the character talk as though she’s memorized the dictionary, or does he simple slang?

Sometimes you can use the contrast between the character and the out-of-character dialogue for humor. Consider for example the movie Catch Me If You Can when con artist Frank Abagnale is posing as a doctor and tries to master doctor lingo by watching hospital soap operas. On those shows the doctors are always asking each other if they “concur” with a diagnosis, so when Frank finds himself having to impersonate a doctor, he keeps asking the other doctors if they “concur” even though it’s obvious to the audience that he has no idea what anybody is saying, much less what he’s concurring to. In this situation, the character’s fancy language underscores his ignorance about all the medical terminology being thrown at him.

Putting It All Together

In the end, these “rules” are not etched in stone and if you need to break one now and then, do it. Think of the Nine No’s as being like signal flares, telling you when to give a passage of dialogue a second look. If you need to use one of these Nine No’s, do it with intention rather than by accident or—worse yet—out of laziness. Like my middle school band teacher used to say:

“If you’re gonna play it wrong, make it good and loud and wrong.”

 

BIO:

Gabriela Pereira is a writer, speaker, and self-proclaimed word nerd who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower writers to take an entrepreneurial approach to their professional growth. Gabriela earned her MFA in creative writing from The New School and teaches at national conferences, regional workshops, and online. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and publishing experts. Her book DIY MFA: WRITE WITH FOCUS, READ WITH PURPOSE, BUILD YOUR COMMUNITY is out now from Writer’s Digest Books. To connect with Gabriela, join the word nerd crew, and get a free DIY MFA starter kit, go to: DIYMFA.com/join.

  • This is very helpful Gabriela. As a reader, I agree with each one of these. As a writer, I’ll continue to be on the lookout for these no-no’s. Thanks for posting this great article Jerry.

    • DIYMFA

      So glad you found it helpful, Callie. It’s hard to see our writing with any objectivity so I’ve found that having a checklist (these 9 No’s) helps me remember what to look for.

  • What a helpful article Gabriela. I appreciate your straight forward style as well as the advice. God bless

    • DIYMFA

      Thank you, Charisse! So glad you enjoyed it and hope you use these tips to write something awesome! :)

  • Frances Wilson

    What great help! Thanks. I struggle, and get stuck, because somehow, the conversation just does not sound like readers would like it to sound.

    • DIYMFA

      Glad you enjoyed it! Here’s another tip: Start with these 9 No’s, when editing your dialogue, but then once it’s as polished as you can get it, read it aloud. Or better yet, have a friend read it aloud. Any place where you trip over the words or inadvertently “edit” while reading, that’s when you know you need to tweak that spot.

  • Alan Asnen

    Great post. Wish I’d had to it read twenty years ago, babe!

    • DIYMFA

      Thanks Alan! Glad it’s helpful!

  • Mike Kehoe

    Thanks Gabriela, great advice. I’m new to this writting game and my wife has been bugging me to write the sequal to our first book. I’m trying to sharpen my skills so I/we can improve on the original. This was a tremendous help and I look forward to the starter kit from DIYMFA.com. Take care and God bless.

    • DIYMFA

      Yay! So glad you’ve joined the Word Nerd crew! Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

  • Judy Peterman Blackburn

    Thank you, Gabriela. I struggle with dialogue and this is good advice to keep in mind as I try to make my characters sound real. :)

    • DIYMFA

      Thank you for the kind words, Judy! Remember that written dialogue isn’t the way real people talk; it’s better, tighter, snappier. In real life we may not have do-overs or hours to think of a great one-liner but we can give that to our characters.

  • Robert Murphy

    Thanks for the post, great information. I’m not a much of a conversationalist so it’s difficult for me to write decent dialogue.

    • DIYMFA

      You don’t have to be an extrovert to write good dialogue. I used to be painfully shy but I learned to write dialogue by reading and also listening to radio plays or even by eavesdropping. ;)

      • Robert Murphy

        My dialogue does improve with many rewrites, but it’s more difficult than I think it should be. I must have adopted dad’s mantra of “none of my business” :)

        • DIYMFA

          Haha! I hear you! :) Whenever someone says I’m being “too nosy” I just tell them: “I’m a writer… it’s my job!”

          If eavesdropping is not your jam, you can also study dialogue in books, plays, movies, and television. Highlight passages that work, then dig in and try to figure out WHY those sections are so compelling. Is there interesting subtext going on? Does the scene tug at a particular emotion? Think of reading as an apprenticeship to your craft. You’ve got this!

  • John Tucker

    Can you learn dialogue by writing plays, skits, and monologues? That’s how I started before I wrote my novels. Having nine specific “helps” makes it that much easier to write exceptional dialogue. That’s my goal. Thanks for caring enough to share these tips.

    • DIYMFA

      Absolutely. Plays are a great way to practice dialogue because the dialogue has to stand on its own. My favorite is listening to radio plays because then it’s all about the character’s words. So glad you enjoyed these tips!

      • John Tucker

        Finding time to write is my biggest problem. It’s like I have this “No Writing Disease” Writing dialogue is fun if you make the time to write. It seems I need an accountability partner to keep me writing. But thanks for the article.

        • DIYMFA

          John–an accountability parter is a GREAT idea. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be in the same geographical location to have a writing buddy. One of my best writing colleagues lives in an entirely different state from me (she’s in Philly, I’m in NYC) but we “sit down to write together” by having Skype open. It’s like we’re sitting across from each other at Starbucks, only we’re each in a different city. Also, communities like what Jerry has created with his Guild is a wonderful way to build connections with fellow writers and forge those writing friendships. :)

          • John Tucker

            Okay. I’ll be more active in the Guild. Thanks.

  • Armando Ortega

    Muy agradecido Gabriela.

  • Armando Ortega

    Quentin Tarantino once said that he learned writing dialogue going to the movies, watching for the juicy parts and then going home and remembering or writing the dialogue as he remembered it.

    • DIYMFA

      Ooh yes! I love studying dialogue in film and plays. One of my favorite plays for snappy dialogue is THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED that has so many great zingers as well as hilarious dialogue.

  • Armando Ortega

    A play is pure dialog. Gabriela please take a look at my 4 act historic play “DON MIGUEL HIDALGO PADRE DE LA PATRIA” that can be downloaded without charge at the FB group “DON MIGUEL HIDALGO OBRA DE TEATRO” (Files section)

  • “Talking head” syndrome really gets to me. I like to feel grounded in what I’m reading. Of course playwriting is pure dialogue, but by the time the work reaches an audience it is taking place in a physical context. I suppose radio plays would be the purest dialogue-only form–which perhaps explains why I don’t enjoy them all that much!

    • DIYMFA

      I hear you on talking head syndrome and it’s interesting what you say about the radio plays. I happen to LOVE them–when they’re done well–because the subtle audio cues like ambient noise or sound effects can create that sense of grounding. The Twilight Zone radio plays are especially good at this.

      • Maybe I just haven’t listened to any GOOD radio plays–because I really love listening to audiobooks and radio-based storytelling (This American Life, RadioLab, etc.).

        • DIYMFA

          That may be it. Have you listened to Orson Welles’ WAR OF THE WORLDS? It’s a classic and what I love is that it uses the radio medium as part of the storytelling, so it fully immerses listeners into the story, making us feel like we are there. If you haven’t, here’s a link Mercury Theater on the Air and you’ll find it listed along with a treasure trove of audio storytelling awesomeness: http://www.mercurytheatre.info/

  • Wendy Holley

    Wonderful article! Thank you for sharing these great nuggets of No No’s in dialogue. As a contest judge and writing coach, I trip over these issues and will be sure to share your article to help writers grow in their craft.

    • DIYMFA

      Thanks Wendy! Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Jerry B Jenkins

    Thanks for all these responses. We’ll invite Gabriela to chime in.

  • Interesting, especially with the way some service employees are being told that they *are* supposed to call customers something every time they open their idjit mouths (I suspect this is a plot to turn customers against service employees and get us to use the robot substitutes). We need more awareness of the fact that people who have any business calling real live humans anything but “Your God-created Humanness My Superior in Every Way the Customer Almighty” *don’t* continue to *call* people who are standing right there! (This has been one of my pet peeves since, I don’t know, I first made the mistake of doing business with a company that miseducated people this way–I think it was bank tellers in the 1990s–know the company didn’t last long that way in any case.)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Yeah, somewhere someone got the idea that the most precious sound we can here is our own name. That’s why young women a third of my age have been trained to refer to me by my first name in every sentence. ‘Course, they’re just doing what they’ve been taught.

      • I’m not sure which is more annoying–blurting out an individual’s name (a breach of security), or misusing some sort of pseudo-endearment (well, “dear,” “sweetie”…”h***y” really is just a pretext for using a nasty word in public!). I disciplined myself to put up with “Ma’am” starting around age 39, but there’s another misbelief floating around that baby-boomers can’t bear to be reminded that we’re adults. (Er, um…I am the age I am, and although I don’t particularly want more white hair, I do know that talking as if I were a child won’t bring back the black.)

        In the first Spanish textbook I used, though, I remember reading that it *was* considered polite to attach “senor/a” in business, or a given name or kinship term in personal conversation, to every “si,” “no,” or “gracias.” That was an old book at the time…I wonder to what extent that was true, or is true now?

        I heard *of* an Anglo-American who thought it was necessary to “call” people in every utterance…one isolated teacher at a rural prep school where the students thought she was out of touch. I’ve never heard Anglo-Americans actually doing that in English, nor Spanish-Americans doing it in Spanish.

  • Charlotte Wheat

    I love your concise delivery and the list of nine. Thanks.

    • DIYMFA

      So glad you found it helpful, Charlotte!

  • Jerry B Jenkins

    Just an FYI: Gabriela is gratified at the responses, but she’s off the grid for a few days and won’t be able to interact here, probably until next week. Keep checking back, though, as she will drop in when she can.