…and How to Solve 9 Common Dialogue Problems.
by Anne R. Allen
I’ve been looking over some of my much-rejected early work and discovered my old stories have way too much dialogue. This is something I see in a lot of newbie fiction.
I remember a guy who came into the bookstore where I worked in the mid-1990’s, schlepping a huge carton of copies of his self-published novel. We agreed to give him a read, but I couldn’t get past chapter six. By then I still had no idea what the novel was about. Four guys were sitting in various places talking about relationships and politics. The book was nothing but dialogue. It read like a script that didn’t even have stage directions.
His characters needed to shut up already and get on with the story. If there was one. So did mine.
And yet, in all the standard how-to-write books, we’re urged to write: “More scenes! More dialogue!”
I think that’s because lot of classic books on writing, like Strunk and White came out before the TV era. They’re full of warnings against the author-intrusion and diary-like musings that come from imitating those wordy Victorian novels whose purpose was to fill long winter nights.
We’re Products of the Television Era.
But most contemporary writers—at least most of us who are Boomers or younger—had our first exposure to fiction via movies and TV. Even if you were lucky enough to have parents who read books to you, the tele/screenplay format probably got cemented into your brain by constant exposure.
That means the stories in our heads tend to scroll by like episodes of Gunsmoke or Law and Order, rather than the chapters of A Little Princess or The Jungle Book.
I was an avid reader from the time I was five, but the serial dramas on The Mickey Mouse Club are what got hard-wired into my little brain.
Most contemporary writers don’t need warnings against addressing readers as “O Best Beloved,” or waxing poetic on the subject of Victorian food delicacies or the “great grey-green greasy Limpopo River.”
But we do need to beware of writing novels that read like bloated screenplays.
Dialogue is a Powerful Tool
One of my favorite handbooks on writing is agent Noah Lukeman’s 2003 book The First Five Pages.
Lukeman’s book gave me my first wake-up call about overdone dialogue. He wrote,
“Dialogue is a powerful tool, to be used sparingly…it is to the writer what the veto is to the President…if you overuse it, people will resent you for it.”
Whoa! I’d been bullying my readers without realizing it.
And I’ve noticed in a lot of literary short stories I’ve read recently, there’s often no dialogue at all.
Is Dialogue Going out of Style?
Dialogue isn’t going anywhere. It might be old-hat with the MFA set, but commercial books still require a healthy dose. That’s because dialogue—when written well—is easier to read than internal monologue.
However, we need to be careful our dialogue isn’t overdone.
The newbie’s tendency to create overly chatty characters may be why so many agents caution against opening a novel with dialogue. The problem may not be the opening line itself, but the amount of blabbering that follows.
If your opening pages look like a screenplay, you may have a problem.
If you’re sending your manuscript to agents and editors and getting mostly rejections, or beta readers react to your stories with a resounding “meh,” it might not be a bad idea to do another run-through of the ms., keeping an eye out for problematic dialogue.
Indirect Dialogue is Often the Solution.
One way to avoid the too-much dialogue problem is simply skip it. Write what’s called “indirect dialogue.”
If the conversation can be summarized without losing any necessary information or emotional interaction in your novel, you can use indirect dialogue to speed up the story.
Instead of many pages of dialogue where Mary’s husband Bob and his buddies make less than clever plans to rob a bank, you can just say. “Over a 12-pack of Coors, Bob and his buddies planned their cockamamie bank heist. Mary went upstairs and started packing.”
That way you don’t have to bore your reader. Or Mary.
Isn’t that “telling” rather than “showing”?
In a literal sense, yes, although there’s showing in the wording and Mary’s actions. But this is why “Show-Don’t-Tell” can be very bad advice.
Here are some other problems new writers need to watch out for when writing dialogue. Sometimes they can be solved by skipping the dialogue altogether and using indirect dialogue.
9 Common Dialogue Problems
1) Big Chunks of Dialogue with no Action or Internal Thought
Talking heads are boring. Move the characters around and let them do something or feel something. A novelist doesn’t have actors to do this kind of work for us the way a screenwriter does.
So we need action on the page.
I don’t mean “action” in the action-adventure sense. When a Mary is telling her husband she’s leaving him, your characters don’t have to get up and slay dragons or stab villains hiding behind the arras.
But they do need to do stuff. And we need to know what’s going on in their heads.
Not a lot. Just something to give us movement and emotion.
You also don’t want to try to inject emotion with punctuation. Exclamation points are like jalapeno peppers. A few can enrich your work, but they they can easily overwhelm it.
2) Show-offy Dialogue that Doesn’t Move the Story
Okay, that ten-page scene shows how perfectly you’ve captured the patois of young stockbrokers in their native habitat—but does it actually further the plot?
This was the problem with the self-published book I mentioned in the opener. The dialogue was authentic 1960s surfer-dude-speak, but nothing of importance was said.
This is common with new writers. It was for me. We’ve been listening forever, writing down the speech patterns of our protagonist’s demographic and we want readers to see how perfectly we’ve captured it.
But it turns out readers don’t care. They want us to get on with the story.
3) Too Much Realism
Another reason not to pull out your eavesdropping notebooks and transcribe them word for word is that in real life, people say really boring stuff.
“Gonna go to the…?”
This is why we read fiction. It skips the boring bits of real life.
A fiction writer should aim to put “just the good parts” on the page, and that includes leaving out the normal pleasantries that people go through in real conversations.
4) Not Enough Realism
Dialogue has to hit a happy medium where it seems authentic.
This is why you should never let one of those Grammarly-type robots loose on your novel.
The third grade dropout will speak as correctly as the lawyer or the librarian. So will the recent immigrant from Uzbekistan and the hairdresser from Queens. They’ll all sound exactly the same, and nobody will make any grammatical mistakes or use any kind of regional colloquialism.
There’s a word for grammatically perfect fiction: unbelievable.
You also have a problem when you let your characters say exactly what they’re thinking.
In real life, people seldom say exactly what they think. If your characters are revealing their souls in dialogue, it needs to be in a therapy session or major heart-to-heart with a significant other.
As Nathan Bransford said on his blog back in 2010. “Good dialogue is comprised of attempts at articulation. There’s a whole lot that is kept back, because we humans only rarely really truly put our true feelings out there.”
5) Reader-Feeder Dialogue: As-you-know-Bob-ism
This is when your characters tell each other stuff they already know in order to fill in backstory for the benefit of the reader—aka “as-you-know-Bob” dialogue.
“As you know, Bob, we are in the lair of the Evil Queen who took our sister Mary hostage after the battle of Curmudgeon and we have been seeking her for twelve long months…”
The writers of those CSI episodes often resort to as-you-know-Bob-ism to explain the science to the audience. It gets a little comical when two highly trained scientists are explaining to each other the basics of rigor mortis or how to detect cyanide poisoning.
This is another instance where “show-don’t-tell” is not your friend. Just tell us. Don’t put it in dialogue.
6) No Dialogue Tags
If readers lose track of who’s talking and have to go back and puzzle it out, you lose them.
“I hate you.”
“I hate you more.”
“It wasn’t my fault”
“Are you going to blame Georgie again?”
“You don’t even like Oreos. I hate you.”
We’re totally lost. So we figure we need dialogue tags. But beware…
7) Cryptic Dialogue Tags
It is true that “he said” or “she said” tags are mostly invisible to the reader, while “he spat” or “she screamed” draw attention to themselves—often not in a good way.
But that doesn’t mean he said/she said tags are the best way to attribute dialogue. Those tags can be boring. They also can withhold essential information.
“I hate you,” he said.
“I hate you more,” she said.
“It wasn’t my fault,” he said.
“Are you going to blame Georgie again?” she said.
“You don’t even like Oreos,” he said. “I hate you.”
Now we know the genders of the people talking, but not much else.
8) Improbable Dialogue Tags
Some writers try for more colorful tags like this:
“I hate you,” Josh spat.
“I hate you more,” Stephanie chortled.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Josh snarled.
“Are you going to blame Georgie again?” Stephanie hissed.
“You don’t even like Oreos,” Josh bellowed. “I hate you.”
This gives us some audio and physical cues, but not many. Plus there’s the added problem that people can’t actually spit, chortle, snarl, or hiss those words.
9) Overloaded Dialogue Tags.
So is the solution to add action to the tag?
“I hate you,” Josh said, throwing the empty Oreo bag at Stephanie and watching it sail over her head onto the floor by the garbage can.
“I hate you more,” Stephanie said, opening the kitchen cupboard and getting her box of Valentine chocolates, which she dumped on the table in front of Josh.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Josh said, sniffling as he looked at the Russell Stovers, a bite taken out of every one.
“Are you going to blame Georgie again?” Stephanie said, remembering the time Josh blamed his little sister Georgie for drinking the chocolate milk he spilled.
“You don’t even like Oreos,” Josh said, picking up the Oreo bag from the linoleum floor and opening the garbage can to throw it in, where he found all his Oreos, covered in coffee grounds. “I hate you.”
It doesn’t quite work, does it?
Sometimes NO Dialogue Tag is the Answer
I turns out what we often need is…NO dialogue tags. Use action to give the attribution without actually saying it.
“I hate you.” Josh threw the empty Oreo bag at Stephanie. It sailed over her head and landed on the floor by the trash can.
“I hate you more.” Stephanie opened the kitchen cupboard and took out her box of Valentine chocolates. She dumped the contents on the kitchen table in front of Josh.
“It wasn’t my fault.” Josh sniffled as he looked at the Russell Stovers, a bite taken out of every one.
“Are you going to blame Georgie again?” Stephanie remembered the time Josh blamed his sister Georgie for drinking the chocolate milk he spilled.
“You don’t even like Oreos.” Josh picked up the Oreo bag and opened the garbage can to throw it in. There were all his Oreos, covered in coffee grounds. “I hate you!”
Now we’ve got something going on within the dialogue.
But Indirect Dialogue May be Better Still.
Especially if those missing Oreos are only peripheral to the story.
“Stephanie and Josh had a stupid argument when Josh took a bite out of every one of Stephanie’s Valentine chocolates and tried to blame Georgie. Then Stephanie paid Josh back by tossing his favorite double-stuffed Oreos into the garbage. They sat in the kitchen sniping at each other all afternoon.”
Keep the Story—and the Reader—First In Your Mind
We learn to write fictional dialogue from listening to real people and reading well-written books. Studying both is required to become a good writer.
Having empathy with your reader is required too. Remember your primary job is to tell the story. This week, uber blogger Kristen Lamb had some wise things to say on the subject of pleasing your reader. Sometimes indirect dialogue is what you need to keep them turning the pages.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) February 4, 2018.
What about you, scriveners? Do think your characters might talk too much? Too little? Do you have problems with writing dialogue? Or is dialogue the part of fiction that comes most naturally? (It does for me.) As a reader, are you taken out of the story when the author falls into some of these problem patterns?
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