Maybe you know someone like me. Just possibly, you are that person.
Most writers are introverts, which is kind of funny, since we’re also communicators. We have a lot to say, and we need to say it, but in a shy and retiring way. We spurn social gatherings, avoid book signings, and duck out of speaking engagements. Let our books communicate for us, like Aaron for Moses. Bantering just isn’t a life skill we’ve acquired.
This explains why we find writing dialogue so difficult.
I’m generalizing, of course. Writers with the gift of blarney do dwell among us, but I’m guessing they probably aren’t the ones reading this post. Such people have an advantage when it comes to creating dialogue, but being a charismatic soul who could strike up an interesting conversation with a lamp post doesn’t automatically grant immunity to dialogue writing mistakes.
That said, here’s the first of the top 10 dialogue writing mistakes I’ve noticed during my years as a literary contest judge.
#1 Dialogue Tag Blunders
Constructions like ‘he said,’ ‘Kathy whispered,’ and ‘Henry asked’ are dialogue tags, used to identify who is speaking and give an idea of the inflection. When these two things are obvious, dialogue tags become redundant.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
“Come on, Nancy,” Jim wheedled. “Go on the roller coaster with me.”
“I don’t care if you beg, I’m not going!” Nancy exclaimed.
“Why do I have to be stuck with such a chicken sister?” Jim asked.
Jim has already identified Nancy in the first sentence. Let’s say this scene is between just the two of them. Wouldn’t the second speaker and her inflection be clear? Likewise, we know who is speaking in the last sentence and that a question is being asked. Removing the excess baggage in this passage improves the pacing.
“Come on Nancy,” Jim wheedled. “Ride the roller coaster with me.”
“I don’t care if you beg, I’m not going on that thing!”
“Why do I have to be stuck with such a chicken sister?”
When you do need to identify the speaker and/or tone of voice, using dialogue tags isn’t ‘wrong,’ but there’s a better way.
Which of the following sentences is better?
- “I’m reading,” he said in irritation.
- “I’m reading.” Honestly, all he wanted was a moment’s peace.
Sentence one keeps us at our distance by telling, rather than showing, while sentence two takes us inside the character’s head.
- “Did you hear that?” Kathy asked.
- “Did you hear that?” Kathy’s voice shook.
In the first sentence, ‘asked’ is redundant, since there’s already a question mark. The second sentence shows us Kathy’s strong emotion.
- “Which way is the tide running?” Henry asked while balancing an oar in one hand.
- Henry balanced an oar in one hand. “Which way is the tide running?”
Again, we have a redundant ‘asked.’ The extra words in sentence one also slow the pacing. Sentence two is pithier and more in keeping with the forthright action it describes.
Let’s go back to the argument between Jim and Nancy and put to use what we’ve learned about beats. Can you see how Jim’s first sentence tells, rather than shows his wheedling? Employing a beat rather than a dialogue tag fixes the problem. We could leave the rest of the dialogue alone to increase the scene’s pacing, or pad the dialogue with beats to flesh out the story.
“Come on, Nancy.” Jim stretched out her name and flashed his best big-brother smile. “Ride the roller coaster with me.”
“I don’t care if you beg, I’m not going on that thing!” He shouldn’t tease her, not after seeing her throw up when she rode it last year.
He picked up a rock and skipped it down the street. “Why do I have to be stuck with such a chicken sister?”
Takeaway: Anchor your dialogue with Introspection, tone of voice, and action while avoiding dialogue tags as much as possible.
Go to dialogue writing mistake #2: overuse of beats. To make sure you receive all installments in this series, subscribe to Live Write Breathe.
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