Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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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.

Let’s start with the most trivial case, one you don’t see all that often actually in print:

c) Incorrect dialogue.

Any book published by an ordinarily competent publisher should be free of actual errors, which is why you should be able to 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.

This is from an actual published book. There were things I liked about this book, and did finish it, but I then gave it away. 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.

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? You only need to specify if an explosion happens slowly, somehow.

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. Though not too often.

When combined with another error — too much variety in dialogue tags — overuse of dialog-tag adverbs really stands out. On just one page of a book I read not so long ago, 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 starts to sound more and more ridiculous.

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 because 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.

Serviceable but boring dialogue is easy to write, so lots of authors write it. Snappy dialogue is hard to write unless you happen to have a knack for it, which is something I envy because I don’t have that particular knack. Steven Brust does — check out his Vlad Taltos series. Laura Florand does — check out her romances. Lois McMaster Bujold does — check out her Vorkosigan books.

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?

Here’s another example:

a) Snappy, fun, unexpected dialogue by Dean Koontz

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 imo a definite step up from most of his other books, and the wit of his protagonist is one big thing that contributes to this.

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. 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.

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! 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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2 Comments Writing dialogue

  1. SarahZ

    There’s also the bad dialogue category where it just doesn’t read like a real conversation, where as you read it you think “people don’t talk like that.” It seems particularly common when people are trying to write a different type of character from themselves (eg, teens), and fail.

    That sort of problem always seems particularly strange to me in tv or movies, because weren’t these issues obvious to everyone the moment they heard all this out loud? But, based on my admittedly small sample set, Hollywood folks are pretty strange, so maybe it sounded normal to them.

  2. Rachel

    I wonder if that is the sort of problem where the writers or producers or whoever say to themselves and to each other, “Oh, it’s passable. Don’t you think it’s passable?” and no one bothers saying, “No, it sounds ridiculous / stiff / boring / like a Mr Spock clone.”

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