Dialogue: The Good and The Bad!

Last week’s blog was all about character development and using my 3P model to consider physical, psychological and philosophical qualities to flesh out characters.  Getting to know a character deep down is necessary before you can turn that character loose in a scene.  When we let those characters roam around our pages, they usually speak and interact with others, and that’s when writers often get into trouble.

I won’t bore you with basic rules.  There’s an overabundance of articles and books devoted to such.  We all know the rule that only one character should speak per paragraph and the dozens of other accepted rules we follow in fiction.  But let’s dig deeper for the finer points of good dialogue.

Authors often say that dialogue is the most difficult part of writing a novel.  That’s because dialogue should convey the attitude, mood, temperament and general psyche of the character – a tall order to say the least!  When characters speak, the words should also convey what those characters are thinking and feeling.

Good dialogue takes practice, trial and error, and surely several edits.  I don’t often think about editing the dialogue during my first draft.  The nuances to consider are too subtle and take my mind away from writing the story.  But with that first edit, I begin adding the psychological and philosophical layers that make the character real and believable.

So the bottom line is that dialogue should help the reader get into the character’s mind.  I think the easiest way to describe good dialogue is to state a few negatives.  The following are some rookie mistakes that should be avoided.

Don’t use dialogue for what’s already been described in narrative:  In storytelling, you provide information and propel the story either through dialogue or narration.  Use one or the other, but don’t duplicate.  For instance, don’t have your character talk excitedly about the flavor of some food and then narrate how much the character is enjoying the meal.  We get the point!  Gestures also go a long way to suggest enjoyment and it uses a minimum of words.  A short description of body gestures often expresses emotion or communicates thoughts better than a couple of sentences of narrative or dialogue, and it helps readers relate better to our characters.

Overuse of superlatives in dialogue: Adverbs like “very” and “extremely” don’t come across as meaning much.  It’s better to use an action verb to convey the feeling behind the words.  For instance, “She was somewhat satisfied with my plan” sounds flat.  Instead say, “The plan troubled her.  I could tell she wasn’t buying it.”  That gives a better visual of what affect the words are having on the character.  And it would be an even stronger statement if the speaker made some gestures to emphasize the point.

Dialogue that’s too literal:  One of the best examples of this is the one word answer, especially “yes” or “no”.  Staccato answers may create dramatic tension (think an interrogation) and that’s fine, but I’m talking about normal conversation.  Answers should convey a “yes” or “no” INTENT but be stated in words that say so PLUS propel the story forward.  Each word of written dialogue should move the reader toward the next sentence.  Otherwise, it distracts readers, takes them out of the story and emotional connections are lost.

Characters stating the obvious:  This really is a continuation of being too literal.  We want to make sure the reader gets what we’re writing so we belabor the point.  Readers are smart.  They connect the dots and usually follow the intent of specific dialogue well.  We don’t have to spell it out unless, of course, the intent would not be noticed otherwise.

Overuse of names in dialogue:  Names of characters should be used sparingly.  The usual rules are to use a character’s name ONLY during an introduction, for dramatic emphasis, when several people are in a room and a character is addressing a specific person, or during long speaking interactions between two people so that the reader doesn’t get lost with who’s saying what.  That’s when “so and so said” becomes important.  But even then, use those descriptive words sparingly.  Studies show that readers often skip over the “he said” “she said” words.

Dialogue being too formal:  Dialogue should sound like people do in real life.  Overly formal dialogue may have its place with a specific character, but everyday people don’t usually say, “That is an interesting and unusual red door.”  They’d say, “Cool red door, never seen one like that before.”  When editing dialogue, read it out loud.  If it doesn’t sound natural, then IT ISN’T!  Change it to normal speak.  Otherwise, you cause the reader to pause (because it doesn’t feel right in the reader’s mind), and when a reader pauses, you break the reader’s concentration and lose the dramatic tension of the story.  Yes, we are told to use complete sentences in dialogue, but modern fiction is written for belief.  It’s the ultimate believable lie! That means we can use contractions and incomplete sentences when necessary for the reader to connect with our characters.

Too much dialogue at once:  Long bouts of dialogue become a monologue and that bores readers.  They begin to skip past that and maybe miss important information. Break up dialogue with some narration and some back and forth dialogue between characters.  A good rule of thumb is never to have more than two sentences of dialogue together before adding some narration or at least some descriptive narrative of what’s happening in the room or to the speaker.  And be succinct – make each word and each sentence count toward moving the reader forward into the next sentence.

Too much exposition in dialogue:  Giving background information to the reader can be tricky.  Background is a necessary part of the storytelling process, but what is too much or too little, and when do you give this information?  Too much at once is called “info dumping” and it overwhelms the reader.  Exposition of background should be doled out slowly, some in narrative and some in dialogue, and only enough to continue the story without confusion.  The problem with dialogue exposition is that the character already knows this information, so why would he or she mention it?  There has to be a good reason for characters to state what is already known; if not, it comes off as false and awkward.  The same rules apply to flashbacks.  They can be effective tools for background exposition, but without a specific purpose they simply confuse the reader.

Good dialogue is a great tool for moving a story forward and having the reader connect emotionally with your characters.  Bad dialogue, on the other hand, is a GREAT reason for a reader to move on to another book.

Thoughts?  Comments?  I’d love to hear them!

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
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14 Responses to Dialogue: The Good and The Bad!

  1. Pingback: My buddy James J. Murray has an EXCELLENT article on the do’s and don’ts of writing your story’s dialogue…:) « Thomas Rydder

  2. Great article, Jim…every writer has these troubles, and I’m working my way through some of them with my editing as we speak. Even more important to get into the character (and the scene) when you’re writing the D…

  3. We all struggle for believable dialogue. Thanks for the kind words and for the repost. Much appreciated!

  4. Suzy Lapinsky says:

    Great information. Now to remember and use it.

  5. Arlee Bird says:

    I can’t think of much to add to this since you covered the topic well. I’ll reiterate the importance of reading dialog passages out loud. I like to imagine that I’m acting them out on screen or in a play and see how natural it feels to read the lines.

    Tossing It Out

    • Hi, Lee. Thanks for your comments. Although it may seem silly to do, reading dialogue out loud is a great way to discover what works and where the flaws are. Thanks for the link to your blog site. Love your blog posts and will go on over for a look. Everyone follow me!

  6. abrach1 says:

    Another excellent post, Jim. What are your thoughts on the use of vernacular in dialogue? I don’t know if this is an issue in the U.S. But here in the U.K. regional accents vary enormously, and that tends to be reflected in dialogue. For example: “Oh, I thought it was you!” in standard English, could become : “Och, Ah thought it wus yerself!” here in Scotland.

    • Yes, the vernacular in dialogue can be very effective and it’s often used in the US. It’s a great tool for identifying character traits, background, etc. But take great care. There’s a fine line between using this dialogue tool and its overuse – which can be distracting to the reader. I worried about that in my first novel when using “broken English” for a Chinese character, but my editor thought I did OK. All the best!

  7. Jim, you hit on the key points. Your method to read aloud is a great one. I teach online classes on point of view for various chapters for Romance Writers of America. Most writers of romance keep one point of view per chapter, and write in third person past tense– one POV for the heroine, and one for the hero. For romantic suspense, the villain gets one. As you stated, natural talk is in short bursts. Usually, that’s no more than five words. Tags tell what the character is thinking. Readers like dialogue, and research shows they skip over narration to get to the dialogue. Writers need narrative to flesh out their character with just a tad of backlog. Each characters has a unique voice. Write “what they say” with emotion and impact.
    “My God, she looks dead. Bet she died weeks ago,” says a character with a certain take on life.

    Anyway, Jim, you are right on target with this important topic.

    • Thanks, Kathleen, for your comments and affirmation regarding dialogue writing. You bring up some interesting points regarding dialogue; and, yes, readers prefer dialogue over narration even though we writers need to “tell” rather than “show” at times. All the best with your classes and your writing.

  8. Great article and examples! Dialogue has always been the more difficult part for me when writing a thriller, trying to make it sound real between characters and not taking away from the action.

  9. Weald Fae Journals says:

    Excellent points, Jim, and great advise to read aloud. About the paragraph “Overuse of Names in Dialogue”: I wasn’t clear about whether you were illuminating the use of names in dialogue tags alone, or the use of names in dialogue and in dialogue tags. I really enjoy your weekly topics–good information to think about. Thanks.

    • Sorry to be a little unclear about “Overuse of Names in Dialogue”. I was actually referring to both situations: names used in dialogue to address someone and dialogue tags. When addressing someone in dialogue, there has to be a reason: such as, introductions or for drama. I also think dialogue tags are used too often when it’s obvious who’s speaking to whom; that can get tedious. Thanks so much for your interest and comments. All the best!

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