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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tuesday Tip: Writing Effective Dialog

I've been reading some first five pages over at the amazing YALitChat site, and I keep seeing the same dialog "mistakes" again and again.  (I hate to call anything a "mistake," but for ease of reference, I will.  Once you know and understand the "rules" though, you can break them with purpose rather than on accident.)  Here are a few pointers to keep in mind as your fingers click away on the keyboard.
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1.  Use Contractions.  We've been taught at every stage of our educations NOT to use contractions when writing. It's been so ingrained in my head, that when writing dialog, I'm apt to write something like, "It is great to see you again."  But that's simply not how most people (especially not teens) talk.  When we talk, contractions fly around faster than hooker flyers in Vegas.  Unless you're intentionally creating a stiff character, salt your dialog liberally with contractions.

2.  Don't Use Dialog Tags Other Than Said or Asked.  This is a really common newbie "mistake." (*raises hand here to be included in the group*)  A tag is what comes after the dialog, as in, "Oh my god, I won!" she shrieked.  Tags other than "said" or "asked" are not en vogue right now, falling into the telling rather than showing category.  If you need to punctuate your dialog with a description following it (and god-forbid don't include an adverb with your tag), then you're probably not doing a good enough job of showing your reader what's happening.  For a complete list of dialog tags NOT to use, check here.  As Nienke points out, "said" is invisible.  The reader's eye skips over it.  Whereas the tag injects the author back into the story.

3.  Avoid Mini-Monologs.  This is particularly true when writing dialog for guys.  I am always running my dialog by my hubby, who invariably tells me, "Guys don't talk like that."  (I'm also told that guys don't get into much description and don't really talk about feelings.)  By and large, no guy is going to speak more than 2 - maybe 3 - sentences at a time.  Even really chatty girls shouldn't have dialog that goes on and on.  When people are talking together, there is a give and take of information.  Skim through your dialog and if you see a block of text, mark it off to go back and revise.

4.  Don't Info Dump.  Don't have one character tell another something just to spoon feed info to the reader.  This is especially true if the other character would already know what he/she's being told.  The reader can immediately spot the info dump for what it is: the author being lazy.  Figure out another way to get your information into the story without being obvious about it.

5.  Punctuate Appropriately.  This is a pet peeve of mine and a lot of people mess it up.  It's not that hard.  If you have a tag following your dialog, DON'T end the dialog with a period. Use a comma, question mark or even an exclamation point (although these should be use INCREDIBLY sparingly).
       Wrong:  "I'm going out." Alice said.
       Right: "I'm going out," Alice said.
On the flip side, you need the comma before the tag.  Don't leave it out.
You would, however, use a period if what follows the dialog is not a tag.  For example:
       "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."  Sarah rolled her eyes. "I don't know why I bother."
Interspacing your dialog with action is a great way to break it up and clue your reader in to who's talking without having to use a tag.  If you want to get really fancy, try this:
"This, my dear Watson, " said Holmes, "is elementary."  Notice the placements of commas and the period.  If you have other punctuation questions, feel free to ask me and I'll do my best to answer.

6.  Have a Purpose.  This is one I actually don't see all that often myself, but I see this advice so often, that someone out there must be doing it.  Dialog in your book shouldn't sound like a normal conversation.  For example:
             "Hi," Sue said.
             "Hey, how's it going?" I answered.
             "Pretty good.  True Blood is on tonight."
             "Oh yeah. I love that show. Pretty crazy car accident Bill was in last week." I shuddered just remembering it.
             "Oh, that reminds me, did you hear about Sarah's car accident?"
SNOOZE!  Get right to the meat of your conversation.  If the point of the dialog in the example above is to break the news of the car accident, start there.  Dialog should be driving your plot forward.  Skip the pleasantries that we all engage in for regular conversation.  As with every other part of your story, make every word count!

These are all just mechanics - the basics really.  If you really want to take your dialog to the next level, I suggest reading this informative post at Dirty White Candy.

Any other words of wisdom you want to share? Things I've forgotten?  I feel like there are probably more rules out there than space on this blog, but hopefully I've hit the "biggies."  (Which reminds me of another thing I hate to see in punctuation - the period goes INSIDE the quotation marks, not outside.)


LTM said...

Great tips! I always have to watch my contractions--I find I put it all down and then go back and re-read for flow (aka, insert contractions)
I was hoping you might take a look at my first 5 before I take them down... curious re: your feedback. If you have time, of course~ ;o)

Racquel Henry said...

Thanks for the tips. I'm in an MFA program at the moment, and I had an issue with contractions. I didn't use them. My professor kept marking them in my stories, until I broke the habit. I'm still working on it, but I'm much better about it.

Nikki said...

Great tips!! I must admit that I've had to edit out all of these at one point or another :)

Lisa Gail Green said...

Good reminders for everyone! Of course there are always moments when rules can be broken (well, okay, not grammatical rules like commas before dialogue tags) but you get the idea!

Julie Musil said...

Such great reminders. And I really appreciated the link for what tags NOT to use. Thanks!

Jessie said...

so glad everyone is finding these tips helpful!

@LTM - I left feedback on your first five during lunch

@Lisa - I think the dialog tag rule is the one that should be broken most frequently, but still not that often

Tom Bridgeland said...

Pretty funny. I know exactly where in my current story I have an info dump. Trying to work it out. :--)

I have a very long 'conversation' too, a sports nut who can't stop taking about it. My critiquers said "Enough!!" Gotta trim that back too, while keeping the flavor.

Ezmirelda said...

Great post jessie! I see people make mistakes with dialogue punctuation all the time. I'm not sure about the " use only said" rule. I looked through a bunch of the books in my library and noticed that they all use dialogue tags other than "said", and that it wouldve sounded bad with something so plain as said. I think this rule was made for newbie writers to get them to stop using adverbs in their dialogue tags. Thanks for the advice, I think I'll look at my wip and change a few things. :)

WritingNut said...

This was very informative and helpful. I'm definitely guilty of overusing dialog tags.

Jessie said...

btw - welcome new followers! I hope to have some more helpful tidbits for you in the coming weeks, months, years, etc. :)

Kay said...

Awesome post! And awesome blog!! Glad to meet you on YAlitchat, and I'm stoked to be a follower of your blog now.

Thanks for critting the first 5 pages of my YA novel GYPSY. I posted a revised opening if you wanna check it out, and I think you posted something for critique -- I can't wait to crit it! Just prepping for a conference this weekend, but I'll be working hard to play "catch up" on critting after it.

Take care!


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