Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Writing Dialogue —

So, you have two choices when you’re writing dialogue. No, wait, three.

a) You can write good dialogue.
b) You can write bad dialogue.

I bet that seems like it exhausts the possibilities, doesn’t it? But no, because

c) You can write dialogue incorrectly.

Starting with the most trivial case, one you don’t see all that often actually in print, unless maybe this kind of thing is more common in self-published books, which seems possible:

c) Incorrect dialogue.

“You can’t really think that’s likely?” She asked. “I mean, considering what we know about his pet vampire pterodactyls?”

I see this in student narrative essays sometimes. Even if a student gets how and when to demote periods inside quote marks to commas, it’s less obvious that when you use a question mark inside quote marks, but followed by a dialogue tag, it is also demoted to comma status, sort of. ANYWAY, it doesn’t end the sentence. The dialogue tag ends the sentence, so that tidbit should go like this:

“You can’t really think that’s likely?” she asked. “I mean, considering what we know about his pet vampire pterodactyls?”

I trust you see the lower-case “she”, right?

Any book published by an ordinarily competent publisher should be free of this kind of error, which is why you can pick any book off your bookshelves to see how to punctuate dialogue correctly. But look at this:

“You don’t have to retire,” Von protested.
“I do,” Eva rejected the compliment. “And if Liege Monitum doesn’t make me an offer soon, I will have to retire here.” She smiled. “You would keep me?”

And also this:

She took his face in her hands. “Promise me that you will be here? Promise me that you will dance with me?”
“I don’t know, Eva,” Von squirmed. “Liege Monitum may not want that.”

Do you see what’s wrong with these tidbits? Eva rejected the compliment and Von squirmed cannot in any way be substituted for Eva said or Von said. They are complete actions, not dialogue tags, but they are being used as dialogue tags. This is wrong. This is incorrect dialogue. In both these cases, there should have been a period rather than a comma inside the quote marks.

Unlike the vampire pterodactyls, I didn’t make these tidbits of dialogue up. This is from THE COURTESAN PRINCE, by Lynda Williams, which I’m reading now. There are things I like about this book, and I think I will finish it (I don’t finish any book unless I really do like it), but I already know I won’t keep it. Dialogue errors is one of the main reasons. Even though there aren’t a lot of errors, I keep mentally rolling my eyes when I hit things like the above and this is not conducive to a smooth reading experience.

b) correct but bad dialogue, type one

I’m a big fan of adverbs, compared to anybody who thinks NEVER USE ADVERBS EVER EVER EVER THIS MEANS YOU is a rule to live by. I think adverbs are a perfectly respectable part of speech, thank you. But here is a bit of dialogue which shows why so many writers turn against adverbs:

“I know we can’t do anything right for you, Ann,” he said, “by definition. But there is something I want to be sure you know before you go.”
“Flying is bad for my health,” Ann said sarcastically.
“Of course, but I didn’t mean that.” He looked down into his big, gentle hands.

This is from the same book by Williams. Actually, this doesn’t bother me if you only see it now and then. But if characters are always saying things sarcastically or hastily or nervously or whatever, probably the author should go through and strip at least two thirds of those dialogue-tag adverbs out of the novel. Three quarters. Nine tenths, maybe.

You want to beware of adverbs in dialogue tags where the dialogue itself or the situation makes it plain that somebody’s sarcastic or hasty or nervous. If a car blows up, you don’t have to say it blew up suddenly. Because, hello? That is the nature of explosions? To be sudden?

Where the dialogue and/or situation don’t indicate how a line is spoken, though, you can reasonably have somebody say something gently or sharply or harshly or whatever will draw the right picture for the reader.

Also, when combined with another error, too much variety in dialogue tags, overuse of dialog-tag adverbs really stands out. On just one page of this book, we have characters who:

Pleaded
Asked
Said
Countered
Volunteered
Exclaimed
Demanded
Pointed out

And the only two invisible tags in this list are “asked” and “said”. Any one of the others would be fine, even any two, but because there are so many different words used as tags, they start to catch the eye. And once the reader notices that there are too many different words being used as substitutes for the invisible “said”, this sounds more and more ridiculous.

This particular book is actually not horrible in this respect. It’s actually not horrible at all, which is why I may go on and finish it. But I was thinking about dialogue and so relatively mild overuse of different tags kinda stood out.

b) grammatically correct but bad dialogue, type two

Boring dialogue is just as bad as overuse of creative tags. There are heaps of books with boring dialogue out there, but I don’t keep them, so it’s hard for me to come up with a good example. I’m talking about the kind of dialogue where every line is predictable, where every line serves to convey information but nothing about it surprises or engages or entertains the reader.

Sometimes this kind of dialogue is just used to dump info, where you aren’t having a conversation but a series of monologues, but that’s not necessarily the case. You can have what should be a quick, light conversation and yet every line said is boring and predictable and clichéd.

Info-dumpy or not, this is the kind of writing where you find yourself skimming ahead to see what happens, but you aren’t really engaged in the story or interested in the characters. I personally seem to see this a lot in contemporary mysteries when I’m trying to find a new author my mother will like, which is hard because the old-time mystery writers were SO GOOD stylistically (Rex Stout, Emma Lathen, Ngaio Marsh) that it’s hard for contemporary writers to compete.

Next! The fun part! Want to see brilliant dialogue? There’s so much great writing out there!

a) Fabulous non-use of dialogue tags by Lois McMaster Bujold.

If you’re looking for an example of how to minimize use of dialogue tags, you could hardly do better than Bujold. Just take any of her books off the shelf, flip it open randomly, and you get something like this:

Miles sank into his seat with a groan. “Some bodyguard you are,” he said to Elli. “Why didn’t you protect me from that interviewer?”

“She wasn’t trying to shoot you. Besides, I’d just got there. I couldn’t tell her what had been going on.”

“But you’re far more photogenic. It would have improved the image of the Dendarii Fleet.”

“Holovids make me tongue-tied. But you sounded calm enough.”

“I was trying to downplay it all. ‘Boys will be boys,’ chuckles Admiral Naismith, while in the background his troops burn down London . . .”

Elli grinned. “’Sides, they weren’t interested I me. I wasn’t the hero who’d dashed into a burning building – by the gods, when you came rolling out all on fire –”

“You saw that?” Miles was vaguely cheered. “Did it look good in the long shots? Maybe it’ll make up for Danio and his jolly crew, in the minds of our host city.”

“It looked properly terrifying.” She shuddered appreciation. “I’m surprised you’re not more badly burned.”

Miles twitched singed eyebrows and tucked his blistered left hand unobtrusively under his right arm. “It was nothing. Protective clothing. I’m glad not all our equipment design is faulty.”

“I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I’ve been shy of fire ever since . . .” her hand touched her face.

Okay, he says five lines and she says five. How many actual dialogue tags are in this passage? Not ten. We have “said” once to get the conversational ball rolling. After that, there are no dialogue tags at all. But we aren’t allowed to get lost in who-said-what? confusion, because every time we need a reminder about who’s speaking, we get a movement tag. Elli grinned. Miles was vaguely cheered. She shuddered appreciation. He twitched singed eyebrows. She touched her face. That’s four lines of dialogue with no tag at all and five with a movement tag, and zero confusion.

Plus! Notice the adverb “vaguely”? See how great that adverb is? “Vaguely cheered” is so not the same as “cheered” – we get a way better idea of Miles’ state of mind because of this adverb. And in the next line, Elli declares that the picture of Miles on fire was “properly” terrifying. Then Miles tucks his hand “unobtrusively” under his other arm. See how good writers aren’t the least bit shy of using adverbs? But mostly don’t in dialogue tags.

Nobody I know of does dialogue better than Bujold. The rest of us could only improve by studying her dialogue and trying to consciously apply techniques that I bet she just uses by feel. That was from BROTHERS IN ARMS, btw, but I expect you all recognized it?

a) Snappy, fun, unexpected dialogue by Dean Koontz

The reason I was actually thinking about dialogue is that I just finished the latest Odd Thomas book by Dean Koontz, and this made me go back and re-read all the other ones in the series.

There are five now, incidentally, and the latest one doesn’t resolve any of the big, HUGE questions that are raised by the fourth book, in case you wondered; it’s an interlude rather than any kind of resolution. Just a warning in case you rush out to get the fifth book because you expect a resolution: No. Doesn’t happen. I’m not persuaded Koontz actually knows where he’s going, actually. But the fifth book is still good, though.

Now, one of the reasons I like Koontz is that he is kinda horror-light, if you know what I mean. Things turn out happily in his books. The characters you become particularly attached to never get killed, whereas when the bad guys get eaten by mountain lions (or whatever), they are bad enough you can cheer their deaths. If there’s a dog? It won’t get killed, either. You can just absolutely trust all this, which I deeply appreciate because I really am not a hard-core horror fan.

But the Odd Thomas books are really good, a definite step up from most of his other books imho, and the wit of his protagonist is one big thing that contributes to this. (So is the moral character of the protagonist, but let’s stick to the subject, which is dialogue.)

Listen to this, from BROTHER ODD, the third book in the series. This is [part of] a conversation between Rodion Romanovich, who is supposed to be a librarian from Indianapolis but certainly isn’t, and the protagonist.

The kitchen offers stools here and there at counters, where you can have a cup of coffee or eat without being underfoot. I sought one of these – and came across Rodion Romanovich.

The bearish Russian was working at a long counter on which stood ten sheet cakes in long pans. He was icing them.

Next to him on the granite counter lay the volume about poison and famous poisoners in history. I noticed a bookmark inserted at about page fifty.

When he saw me, he glowered and indicated a stool near him.

Because I’m an amiable fellow and loath to insult anyone, I find it awkward to decline an invitation, even if it comes from a possibly homicidal Russian with too much curiosity about my reasons for being a guest of the abbey.

“How is your spiritual revitalization proceeding?” Romanovich asked.

“Slow but sure.”

[. . . . .]

With his attention devoted to the application of icing to the first of the ten cakes, he said, “I myself find that baking calms the mind and allows for contemplation.”

“So you made the cakes, not just the icing?”

“That is correct. This is my best recipe . . . orange-and-almond cake with dark chocolate frosting.”

“Sounds delicious. So to date, how many people have you killed with it?”

“I long ago lost count, Mr. Thomas. But they all died happy.”

[. . . . .]

Romanovich’s brow seemed to include a hydraulic mechanism that allowed it to beetle farther over his deep-set eyes when his mood darkened. “I am usually suspicious of people who are universally liked.”

“In addition to being an imposing figure,” I said, “you’re surprisingly solemn for a Hoosier.”

“I am a Russian by birth. We are sometimes a solemn people.”

“I keep forgetting your Russian background. You’ve lost so much of your accent, people might think you’re Jamaican.”

“You may be surprised that I have never been mistaken for one.” He finished frosting the first cake, slid it aside, and pulled another pan in front of him.

I said, “You do know what a Hoosier is, don’t you?”

“A Hoosier is a person who is a native of or an inhabitant of the state of Indiana.”

“I’ll bet the definition reads that way word for word in the dictionary.”

He said nothing. He just frosted.

“Since you’re a native Russian and not currently an inhabitant of Indiana, you’re not at the moment really a Hoosier.”

“I am an expatriate Hoosier, Mr. Thomas. When in time I return to Indianapolis, I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.”

“Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier.”

“That is correct.”

The pickle had a nice crunch. I wondered if Romanovich had added a few drops of anything lethal to the brine in the pickle jar. Well, too late. I took another bite of the dill.

Okay, I hope everybody finds that as much fun as I do, but since I’ve read the whole book and know what’s really going on with Romanovich, and also remember all the great exchanges between him and Odd Thomas, I have advantages. Trust me, though, the interplay between these two characters adds such pizazz to this book!

You can also see that out of nineteen lines in which somebody speaks, there are only four real dialogue tags – three using a plain “said” and the other an equally plain and invisible “asked”; none using adverbs. There are also two movement tags. The other thirteen lines I’ve quoted don’t use tags at all, but it’s always crystal clear who’s speaking. Partly this because of grammatical conventions – ie, switching paragraphs between speakers – and partly it’s because the two characters’ voices are so utterly different.

Not only are the voices distinct and distinctive, but also very little in this exchange is predictable and boring. Anybody see that line about Jamaicans coming?

Personally, I loved the bit where Romanovich says “I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.” He’s a great character with a wonderful voice. Plus, hey, cake! Which I will just remove some of the suspense and assure you that the cakes are not poisoned.

Okay! That’s enough, I’m sure! Go forth and pay attention to dialogue! Me, I’m going to go re-read something by Lois McMaster Bujold now.

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6 Comments Writing Dialogue —

  1. Mary Beth

    Oh yes Bujold!

    I admit to being one who uses adverbs way too much in dialogue tags, and I’ve discovered it’s generally a sign of laziness. When I’m editing, I always take care to go through and strip out as many of the adverbs as I can (which means, maybe, one for every ten lines of dialogue, instead of one for every three.)

  2. Rachel

    I actually use a fair number of adverbs in dialogue, relatively speaking, but these days I think I really do consider each one as I put it in: do I really really really want to put this adverb in here? And then when I revise I take a few out, and when I do the very last read through I take a few more out.

    I’m always putting one in and taking it out and putting it in again, sometimes just in my head but sometimes with the delete key. But I still use some.

  3. Matthew

    I haven’t read those three mystery writers, so I’m not sure what kind of mysteries they are. However, my favorite, lately, is Alan Bradley with his Flavia de Luce novels.

    I just started re-reading the Vorkosigan novels last week (in anticipation of the new one in November) and now I foresee myself paying a LOT more attention to the way her dialogue is written. :)

  4. Rachel

    Well, for two pages! Then I’m sure you’ll get sucked into the story and the words on the page will vanish . . .

  5. Rachel

    Romanovich is the GREATEST non-Librarian from Indianapolis! You must read the book: the way he knows EVERYTHING about Indy is indeed hilarious.

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