Pick up any work of fiction and flip through it. In fact, flip through several. How much of the novel is dialogue?
With the exception of a few genres or older works, I’m betting your estimate comes in around 40-50 percent. It might even come in higher if the book is aimed at younger readers. The presence of dialogue means SCENE, which means ACTION, not narrative. And anyone pounding out a novel knows that scene/action should make up the bulk of the book to adequately move the story along.
So, back to that estimate: 40-50 percent. That’s a disaster in the making if your dialogue is weak. Let’s look at some common pitfalls.
Repetition in Structure and Dialogue Tags.
Dialogue, followed by tag. Dialogue followed by tag. Watch for patterns like this during conversations and shake up the order if they go on ad-nauseum. Another common repeat is NOUN/PRONOUN + said (or vice-versa). Said tends to be invisible and should be used, but don’t rule out the occasional use of a BEAT (see below) or tagless dialogue (provided it’s clear who’s speaking).
Tag Less Dialogue
Tagless dialogue can create the effect of a fast exchange, sometimes necessary in a scene. This technique should be used with caution–the reader should always be aware of who is speaking. If you try tagless dialogue with more than two people, you run the risk of confusing the reader and it should also only be used in bite-sided interchanges. Using the actual name in the dialogue as a way of showing the speaker should only be done with good reason.
Changing Up ‘Said’ Because The Writer Thinks It’s Boring
Said is invisible to the reader and while it can seem repetitive, rotating through other said-isms (exclaimed, interjected, insisted, responded, retorted) is a bad idea. Sooner or later the reader picks up on these synonyms and it pulls them out of the story. NEVER LET THE READER NOTICE THE WRITING. If you must show the dialogue is being delivered in a specific way (yelled, pleaded, stuttered, whispered, etc) you can use a synonym occasionally. More below.
Like drugs, just say no. If you feel the need to modify said with an adverb, chances are there’s a better way to show it. She said quietly = she whispered. He said loudly = he yelled. There are a few times when a modifier is justified, but challenge yourself on finding a better way before using it, either through a specific said-ism or showing through a BEAT.
BEATS: Too Many, Too Few, Too Fluffy
Beats are tiny bits of action that work with the dialogue to show emotion, motivation, enhance the scene, or create rising tension. You can use them in place of a dialogue tag.
Mary slammed a plate onto the dirty counter. “What do you want for lunch?”
The use of ‘slammed’ tells us a bit about Mary–she’s either angry at the person she’s speaking to, or she’s feeling harried and impatient. But change it to:
Mary placed a plate onto the dirty counter. “What do you want for lunch?”
Now we don’t really know what she’s feeling. ‘Placed’ doesn’t provide any clues, so make sure your beats not only show the scene or the character, but imply a state of mind/emotion. Beats should always work hard to be in the dialogue, and be used in moderation. No beats can create a dull exchange. Too many slow the exchange to a crawl. Make each one count.
Info Dumps Disguised as Dialogue
Some writers attempt to avoid back story or massive info dumps by dressing it up as dialogue. Dialogue should absolutely convey information, but only as it applies to the current action and only in small amounts.
Dialogue should always move the scene forward. Characters should always have a valid reason for speaking–chit chat over the weather or clothing or so-and-so’s new baby happen in real life and should not happen in books unless there is a strong motivating goal hidden behind it. Never dump a load of back story on the reader all at once–dialogue should be a natural exchange of ideas, not a speech. Never use dialogue to rehash what the readers and characters already know.
Weird Dialects, Broken English or Stiff Dialogue
Each character is different, and so their dialogue should have a different flow to it. This doesn’t mean that all your characters should have outlandish dialects or slang every word to ‘show’ their personalities–not only can this mark you as an amateur when overused, it can be hard to read. Be subtle and show light differences in speech patterns and beat actions. The character’s viewpoint and personality should come across by what they say. A person with a sarcastic outlook will say something completely different than one who generally sees the good in everything. Make sure your dialogue matches your character to avoid stiff or unrealistic-sounding dialogue.
Unlike the rest of the novel, dialogue should not always follow perfect sentence structure and grammar–it should sound very close to how we actually speak. In real life we drop words, speak in fragments. It’s okay to use these as long as the end product sounds accurate for the character and it doesn’t become distracting to read.
Dialogue requires practice to get right, but with such a large role in the average novel, it’s absolutely necessary that we put as much effort into it as possible. 🙂