Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Do Your Dialogue A Favor

I have to say this -- and it's said in the spirit of wanting you to learn to write better.

Okay, here goes.

I have read SO MUCH REALLY-BAD DIALOGUE over the past few years, both as an editor and as a reader-of-contest-slush, that I sometimes want to throw a veritable tantrum.

One of the first things a writer needs to learn is to STOP BEING IN LOVE WITH HIS WORDS.  And, in my opinion, one of the places this in-love-with-my-words shows up most painfully is in character dialogue.

So here's what I want you to do (and what I tell my clients):


I've said this before (probably more than once), but it bears repeating, because I really see so much clunky, unbelievable dialogue.  Reading our dialogue out loud helps our EARS to discern whether or not something sounds natural.  Because, in real life, dialogue is aural, not visual.

Like, if you met someone on the subway and they talked like Yoda, you'd sort of notice right away, yes?

Yet you might be tempted, in the midst of your fantasy novel, to make Gregor the One-Handed say, "Perturbed I am that fallen has the city."

Seriously.  It happens.

Here are some examples (and things to avoid):


Because you're thinking about words too much, or you're trying too hard to make your character sound intelligent, you over-think and over-craft his dialogue, making him sound like he's reading from a textbook or giving a speech.   Often, you are FORGETTING TO USE CONTRACTIONS, which exacerbates the problem.

"I do not know what you mean," Goober said.  "I have been trying, to no avail, to reach you by phone or by email for approximately four days.  There is nothing more frustrating, in my opinion, than being accused of not communicating properly, when actually I have been doing my best all along."

Poor Goober.  He has a stick up his behind.

This is better:

"I don't know what you mean," Goober said.  "I've been trying to reach you for four days."

(No, really.  That's all you need here.)


People do not talk in gigantic chunks of text (unless they are stuck in a Dickens novel).  If your character's dialogue is more than a couple lines long (three at the most, unless the situation truly warrants a more verbose speech), he is SAYING TOO MUCH AT ONCE.  If he really does have a lot to say, break it up by interspersing reactions from other characters and beats (character actions).

"I got there right as they closed," Twiggy said.  "The woman had just flipped the sign over, and she saw me standing there.  I raised my eyebrows at her, but she pretended she didn't see me.  I mean, I get that.  It was time for her to go home.  But she made me feel less than human.  So I started banging on the window with both fists--just banging and banging, while she stood there staring at me like I was some sort of alien.  I never meant to break anything.  I never meant for the police to be involved.  It just got a little out of hand."

Oh, Twiggy.  No one wants to listen to you prattle on.

This is better:

"I got there right as they closed," Twiggy said.  "The woman had just flipped the sign over, and she saw me standing there.  I swear she saw me."

"Did you ask her to let you in?"  Maximus asked.

"I raised my eyebrows at her, but she pretended she didn't see me."  Twiggy crossed her arms and started pacing.  "I mean, I get that.  It was time for her to go home.  But she made me feel less than human."

"Oh, Twig."

"I started banging on the window with both fists, while she stood there staring at me like I was some sort of alien."  She sighed.  "I never meant to break anything.  I never meant for the police to be involved.  It just got a little...out of hand."


Dialogue needs to have a clear purpose--it's either a) developing character relationships, or b) revealing information, or c) moving the plot forward.

And even if it's not doing a or b, then it DEFINITELY and ALWAYS needs to do c.  Otherwise, it's just blather.

Tip sat on the bench.  "What'd your mom pack for lunch?"

"Tuna fish and a bag of chips," Flip said.

"Tuna fish?  That's gross."

"Well, I like it."  Flip opened his lunch bag and pulled out a sandwich.

"That smells."

Flip frowned. "I didn't even open it yet."

"Well, I can smell it anyway."

"I've got ham and jelly," Tip said.

"And you think tuna's bad?"

"I've been eating ham and jelly since I was two," Tip said.  "My gramma used to always cook ham with pineapple on top, and then we'd have it for leftovers on bread.  Well, one day, there was ham leftover, but no pineapples.  So my mom smeared jelly on my sandwich.  Been eating it ever since."

Flip pulled open his bag of chips.  "Whatever.  Are you trying out for that play tomorrow?"

"Haven't decided."

"Mary Fulsen is trying out," Flip said.

"What do I care about Mary Fulsen?"

"She's been in two plays before, her brother used to be plays all the time before he moved up to high school."

"Well, I'm not going to try out just because she is," Tip said.

Flip opened his milk carton.  "They were out of chocolate milk again."

"I don't like chocolate milk."

"Strawberry milk is pretty good, though."

Tip made a gagging noise.  "That's even worse.  Milk isn't supposed to be brown or pink."


"How's your tuna fish?"

"It's pretty good.  How's your ham and jelly?"

"It's pretty good, too."

(Hopefully you stopped reading before you got here.  Tip and Flip's entire scene needs to be deleted and rewritten.)


This is the kind of thing that tends to happen in science fiction or fantasy novels.  In an attempt to create an "otherwordly" effect, writers will sometimes overdo the weird, creating character dialogue that sounds like it came from the scrap pile on the editing floor of a B-movie.

Kuzani stared at the mage, her heart in knots.

"Precious and irreplaceable daughter of the Most High Governor, I salute you with a thousand bright stars."  The mage bowed, folding in half like a boneless snake.  "I am Cheezits'kan, First Mage of the Aboriginal Muckus."

"I'm honored."  She wasn't, really, but it seemed like the right thing to say.

Cheezits'kan stepped forward, his iridescent robes playing with the light.  "As the sun rises and sets over the hills of hither and yon, with each rising and setting easily predicted and never failing, so my confidence in you is longsuffering and ever-present."  He placed his finger on his nose.  "Hark!  And heed!  For many and sundry are the words I have to speak to you e're this night passes, and already my throat is nigh parched for lack of arcane liquid.  Come, let us partake of the fruit of the sacred vines, fermented and bottled in the ages before time.  Then, and only then, we will squeeze words from our lips."

If Kuzani had only stabbed him at "precious", we wouldn't have had to read that.

So I'm going to say this one more time:


Trust me when I tell you that your ear WILL let you know when something sounds off.  If your character says, "I will not be there," and you read it out loud, your ear will immediately say, "Well, huh.  It should be I WON'T BE THERE."

And so on.  LISTEN to the words you write.  It will start to make a difference in how you write them.

(Disclaimer:  I'm not saying that you have to sit down and read your entire novel out loud.  That's just...silly.  But spending some time on pertinent scenes of dialogue, and reading them out loud so that you can really listen to your characters conversing, will go a long way in improving the way you make your characters talk.)

All righty, then -- have at it!  And best of luck.  I truly want you to be able to produce the best that you are capable of.  Dialogue, ultimately, is FUN!  Spending a little time making it better will allow you to enjoy it so much more.  Your characters--and your readers--will thank you.


  1. Love it! Those are easy traps to fall into.
    I like having my Kindle read me my story too. I really helps point out the rough stuff! :)

    1. Oh, true! I have my Macbook Air read for me sometimes, too. It doesn't help with dialogue as much as it helps me to find wrong words and such. Forgot about that!

  2. The examples made me wet my pants...too funny. Oh geez, I hope one of those wasn't in my MS. Let me go reread.

    1. I love making people wet their pants. :))))

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  4. That tuna sandwich! That mage! :) This is so great. But -- I actually do read my entire novel out loud. Over and over. And when my attention drifts and I get bored or confused by what I'm saying, I know it's time to get out the scissors/CTRL+X

    1. Thank you!

      And wow -- good for you for reading the whole thing out loud!!! Such a wonderful thing to do. I'm impressed. :)

  5. Your too weird example... OMG I'm still laughing. Love this advice. When I think a book is DONE I read the entire thing aloud. Makes such a difference.

    1. Hee! :)) I was only able to write that because my first-ever novel was a terrible, terrible YA fantasy, and it wasn't much better than the example I made up. >.<

      GOOD FOR YOU for reading the entire thing out loud!! That is quite a feat, and such a great thing to do. *throws roses*

  6. So I'm just guessing here, but maybe we should read our dialog out loud? Possibly? :)

    I like getting Word to read it to me in it's bland robot voice. I figure if it sounds good without inflection, it's even better with.

    1. Hee!! :))

      Yeah, I have my Macbook robot read out loud sometimes, too. It doesn't help as much with dialogue as it does with catching wrong words and misspellings, though.

      The robot's mispronunciations drive me crazy, though. And there doesn't seem to be any way to fix them!

  7. Great post with examples. But I don't know if reading at least the entire final draft aloud is too much. I'm sure as hell doing it this time.

    1. I say -- go for it! When I first started writing, my husband used to read my chapters out loud to me. It was one of the best ways EVER to hear how bad my dialogue was, because he totally made fun of it (and did silly voices).

  8. Thanks for this much needed comic relief at two o' clock in the afternoon! =) Also super helpful, I'm definitely going to try reading my dialogue out loud.

    1. Hooray! And you're quite welcome. :)

  9. Also, the ear picks up repetition easily. It can be a phrase like "over there" or an unusual work like "adverse." If they occur on the same page, it's embarrassing.

    Or in trying to vary the dialog description, if two people give a "sideways look" in the same chapter, the ear can pick that up.

    1. Very true, Mark! I find that using the robot reader on my Macbook is especially helpful for picking up those pesky repeated words.

  10. Thanks, Authoress! Like Leandra, I especially enjoyed the comic relief (number four is hilarious!). :D

    And I would agree with the others who said it isn't really silly to read your entire manuscript aloud -- even if you're just reading it aloud in your head, rather than actually speaking -- because I think the sound of the language is extremely important.

  11. Excellent advice - although I actually DO think it's a good idea to read your entire novel aloud. Crazy, maybe, but more than just dialogue can benefit from hearing it read out loud!

  12. I absolutely read aloud, both narrative and dialogue. And I thought Tip and Flip were perfectly fine up until the end of the sandwich bit! ☺

  13. A great reminder! I also do a round with the software "Natural Reading". It is a free download and hearing my writing in someone else's voice helps me to pick up things I miss in my own read aloud.

  14. Oops. In case someone's interested, that should have been "Natural Reader." I guess I should have read it aloud before posting. :0)

  15. I agree that writers need to read their whole MS aloud. Sometimes when I'm writing the dialogue I actually act out the actions and I become the characters talking. Then, I write it. This helps me with realistic dialogue and the characters actions and reactions to each other. I know it sounds crazy, but it works for me.

    Another thing that is helpful is to read books in the genre that you are writing in paying attention to realistic dialogue. After I'm done reading a good book I go back and analyze why I thought the book was good. I especially dissect the first couple pages, characters, problem, plot, language... This helps me become a better writer.