Monday, January 9, 2012

Dialog Do-Overs

I am in revision hell right now with my WIP. But the good news is that my publisher has pushed my deadline back, as I've got all kinds of crap going on with my other professional life that will probably involve relocation far away.

I'm also helping a few others with their own work. And a few years ago, I taught creative writing to eager and enthusiastic young writers. When reflecting on some of the things I've come across while wearing my editor's hat, I came up with just a short list of common mistakes writers make when creating dialog. Dialog to me is key to a good book, and even the most season writers make the following mistakes:

Long Winded. Are you a people watcher? I am. I'm also an eavesdropper. I love listening to people talk. Have you noticed that 99% of the time, people speak in three-four sentence blocks per turn? I've come across rough drafts where characters will go on and on. And it's easy for a writer to do. Unless your character is giving a speech or something, stick to shorter blocks of dialog.

And if you find yourself making your characters speak in Emancipation Proclamation type of dialog blocks, you're probably doing the next big dialog no-no...

P.S. Don't write dialog that imitates EXACTLY  how people talk. Fill your dialog with short hand slang and  um and uh all over the placeyour reader will stumble. Keep the more natural "filler" humans use down to a minimum.

Information Overload. Dialog is supposed to have purpose. Move the story. Propel it. And that's why it's easy to put too much information in your dialog. Readers are smart. No need to spell everything out. No spoon feeding. It's condescending to your reader and a HUGE turn off. Let dialog build suspense, reveal motives, and show conflict.

If you're going to use dialog to introduce major elements or describe a missing scene, please make sure it's natural and flows. Don't pull a Shakespearean aside and have a character spell stuff out to the reader (a la Ferris Bueller). Not only does it show laziness, but it also looks very amateurish. Make your book an information dump-free zone.

Name Calling. I see this a lot in beginning writers' work. When you watch TV or movies, you'll notice characters are constantly calling each other by name when they speak. This makes sense, as it helps the viewer figure out who is who. But we don't do that in real life. Could you imagine:

"Hey John, what are you doing?"
"None of your business, Jim."
"You shouldn't be doing that, John. It's dangerous."
"Jim, keep your mouth shut."

Not only does this dialog sound really stupid, it's the mark of an amateur. I would say you should have no more than a handful of instances where characters call each other by name when they speak. Writers use tags to help readers figure out who's speaking. Speaking of tags...

Stupid Tags. Tags help - but don't try too get to fancy with your tags. From the reader's perspective, the word said is nearly invisible. It flows. It works. Don't crack open that thesaurus to find new tags unless it's incredibly important and necessary. Other good tags are: replied, asked, questioned, answered.

Bad tags: cajoled, seethed, ejaculated, hissed, sneered, snort, gasp, and moan. There's more, but I just drew a blank. But you get the picture. Example: it is physically impossible to hiss, gasp, or snort actual words. Ask any speech therapist. And yes, I did read one manuscript from a college student that used ejaculated as a dialog tag.

Go do a SEARCH for the word hiss in your current WIP. Unless you're writing about a snake, chances are you need to get rid of it. And if it's being used in dialog tag, most certainly it must be EXTERMINATED (in my best Dalek voice).

Use alternative tags sparingly!  But get rid of dialog tags that are either lazy and/or redundant. Examples: admitted, confessed, taunted, noted, examined, concluded...There are so many! These tags can be sprinkled here and there - but many writers use these when they're just being plain lazy asses. If the reader can't figure out that a character is taunting without the use of that tag, then you're not doing your job as a writer.

Adverbial Tags. While we're on the subject of dialog tags, get rid of adverbs. No seriously (ha). Get RID OF 95% OF YOUR DAMN ADVERBS. The suck. They show laziness. And putting them in your dialog tags sucks atomic donkey balls.

"You need to stop doing that," Jim hissed accusingly.

Okay, get rid of hissed, because it is physically impossible to hiss those words. And get rid of accusingly. If you need that to explain to the reader what's happening, you're assuming your reader is a moron. Lose all adverbs. Zap them, kill them. Hang 'em up, and then burn them. You want be be descriptive? Add a little action.

"You need to stop doing that," Jim said as he snatched the remote control from John's grasp.

*Caveat: There are a few instances where you might need an adverb, but any adverb should still be a red flag.

"Thanks a lot," she said bitterly.

Okay, bitterly is fine there. Because from her spoken words, you can't tell that she's bitter. But like I said, keep adverbs to an absolute minimum. Don't be lazy. Do a SEARCH for ly in your word processing document and kill those unnecessary adverbs (A.K.A. vermin).


Movie Scripts. One of the worst things a writer can do is create dialog as if it's a transcription of a conversation. In addition to tags, add a little bit of action - give the reader a clear idea of not just what is being said, but what is happening. You can also use a little bit of action instead of a tag:

Jim ripped the remote control from John's grasp. "You need to stop doing that."

If you have one line of pure dialog after another, unless it's a very quick exchange, readers get bored. Break up dialog with tags AND action. You're not writing a movie script.


Local Color. Okay, this one is very tough. And even NY Times Bestsellers have to work hard on this. If you have a character that speaks with a foreign accent or some type of dialect (regional or otherwise), you need to still convey that, yet not have it be such an obstacle that the reader needs a Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring to figure out just what the hell is being said.

"Wen back in de day, dey said dere wasn't no way de kin 'kep 'em comin'," said Wilbur.

I get it. The old man is from the South. But this is such a jumbled mess. Try this instead:

"When back in the day, they said there wasn't no way they could keep 'em coming," said Wilbur.

Again, less is more. In my current WIP, my main character speaks without using contractions. There are some cool things you can do to make dialog a great part of characterization. And infusing local color is one way. Just don't abuse it, okay? This ain't no Hooked on Phonics!

* * * *

* I hope I could be of some help. I know I have to keep this stuff in mind with my own work, as I'm just as guilty of these transgressions as anyone else. But like everything in life, there are always exceptions to the rule. If you have a character that speaks only in adverbs, if your character is verbose and won't shut up, or if you have a pair of characters that call each other by name when they argue - all of these cases call for the dialog rules to be broken (or bent).

But I still think if you really look hard at your manuscript and those alarms go off in your head, hopefully you're just one step away from creating a better product.

27 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've always heard that dialogue tags should stick to the basics and not be overly flowery.
Sorry real life is messing you up, but at least your publisher pushed back the date. Give you some breathing room!

David P. King said...

I've been guilty of all of those. Why couldn't I have read a post like this five years ago?

Thanks for the great post! And here's to restoring normalcy into your personal life soon!

Christine Rains said...

I'm a people watcher and an eavesdropper too. Most of the time, it's just shallow chatter, but once in a while, I hear a good juicy conversation. Great inspiration! Wonderful post on dialogue. Thanks.

T. S. Bazelli said...

I always fall into the movie script trap ;) When it gets like that, I find that a lot of it can be trimmed down and described in another way.

Jay Noel said...

Alex: That is right on. Simple is best. And yes, my publisher is very understanding.

David: We are all guilty! It took me years of writing garbage to get rid of 75% of this stuff. But adverbs still sneak their way into my manuscripts. Pesky varmints!

Christine Rains: I once listened to a girl totally chew out her boyfriend for texting another girl. JUICY.

Jay Noel said...

T.S. You know, sometimes you just have to throw stuff down on paper, as bad as it is. That's what revision is for, right? Adverbs are weakness, along with stupid tags finding their way on my pages here and there.

Dafeenah said...

wow this was awesome and perfectly timed in more ways than you'll ever know. I'm going to copy this and save this so I can refer back to it. If you have more tips please feel free to share I need all of the tips I can get.

Jay Noel said...

D: I'm glad I could help, despite my tyrannical tone (which is more for entertainment's sake).

A couple other tips: it's much more common to put the character's name BEFORE the verb tag.

"Hi there," John said.

You can put reverse it (said John.) once in a while to vary it up, though.

I think I could do an entire post on dialog tags. There's so much there!

Tiyana, aka "Yoyo" said...

Where's the "Like" button? :D

"You can also use a little bit of action instead of a tag."

The first time I realized I could do this it was like *angels singing*. So much more interesting, in some cases.

Of course, you can go overboard and end up with an entirely new problem... Balancing this stuff out throughout an entire novel is tough! It's like planning out an artistic composition, in a way.

Jay Noel said...

Tiyana: Exactly! And using a little action also help you follow another golden rule: show, don't tell.

"Oh, just give it up." John glared with hand son hips.

The Golden Eagle said...

I'm bookmarking this post--I really need to work on my dialogue, so this will definitely come in handy!

M Pax said...

I think I have a 'hiss' in my WIP. Will delete.

Good luck with what's going on with your day job, and I look forward to reading your novel.

I've been in revisions, too. Moving on to writing again, but I revise while writing, too.

Michael Offutt, Visitor from the Future said...

Best of luck to you in your revisions. At least the hell you are in will have a big emotional payoff. Hopefully some of that will turn into a financial payoff as well.

Ciara said...

Thank you for not saying cut ALL adverbs. If you can say something in one word instead of four, go for it. It cracks me up when I read manuscripts where they try to cut ALL adverbs or the word 'was.' It's okay to sprinkle, just not saturate. :) Great post.

Jay Noel said...

Eagle: I'm so glad I wrote something useful!

Mary: I found three. But one of them referred to a hiss of steam, so that one got to stay.

Michael: Thanks buddy. I hope so too.

Ciara: You can't cut all adverbs. Adverbs might be necessary. But most aren't. If I'm going through edits, I will search for any ly words and ask myself, if having the adverb is absolutely necessary.

Milo James Fowler said...

Excellent advice. "Don't write dialog that imitates EXACTLY how people talk." Have you read The City and the City? I've never seen dialogue with more verisimilitude -- and yeah, it was difficult to read at times.

Phats said...

Nice advice I feel like I am ready to start writing :) haha

Good luck with your writing and your relocation!

Jessie Humphries said...

This is a totally great reminder (oops...adverb). I am control finding the word "hiss" immediately!

Riann Coltan said...

Dialogue is so tricky. I had one book rejected because it read like a screenplay. Too much external dialogue and not much internalizing.

On the other hand I now have one character who doesn't chat much. She needs to get chattier.

The balance. Finding it...oof. Tricky.

sonia said...

It's funny, I used to try to get the exact way people talk into my writing and though it felt real it also felt annoying. I suppose the way most people talk (unless they use really colorful language the way a lot of Southerners do... at least in books ; } ) is quite uninteresting. That was definitely a learning process for me.

Matthew MacNish said...

Lot's of great advice here, Jay. My favorite thing to do is eliminate dialog tags by adding action that attributes the dialog to the speaker. But, as you point out, the key is always balance. You don't want to eliminate all of it - unless you're Cormac McCarthy.

Jay Noel said...

Milo: It's a tough line to walk, isn't it. You want it to be authentic. But too authentic, and it's tough for the reader to figure out.

Phats: Get going man! And thanks.

Jess: Kill those hisses! Unless the hiss is an actual hiss. Then it's ok.

Riann: And with finding that balance, I've read drafts (including my own) with too much internalizing. And then it just bleeds into telling instead of showing. Ugh.

Sonia: Right. We're not an eloquent people naturally.

Matthew: Those are called dialog beats. You want a nice mix of beats and tags. And the best beats are the ones that give the reader a little clue about the character.

Rusty Webb said...

Great advice - More than a few well liked novelists commit those sins too - it's just not us little folk. I ripped one book I read recently to shreds on goodreads because the dialog was some of the worst I'd ever seen in a published novel. Horridly awful. And it was a pretty big name in SF. Go figure.

The Desert Rocks said...

Lots of good stuff here, too bad I'm stubborn! Sounds like with an agent and a publishing promise you're on your way to the top. Good luck and hope you remember me when you're rich and famous. You can say, "I warned her about those bloody adverbs!"

Jay Noel said...

Rusty: I too have seen so many poorly written books by authors from the Big 6 as well. I don't get it.

Eve: No agent (yet). I might get there eventually. Luckily, I have a lot of experience in corporate sales, so there hasn't been a need for me to get an agent. Focus on the writing first, and the rest will hopefully fall into place.

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