Common problems with dialogue —

A post at Anne R Allen’s blog: 9 Common Dialogue Problems—And How to Fix Them.

Here’s how this post begins:

What we’re looking for is believable dialogue, not realistic dialogue. In fiction, we’re usually aiming for believability, not realism.

And dialogue tags! Dialogue tags are probably the biggest problem in newbie writing. Is “said” really invisible?” We want to show a little creativity, but avoid the “Tom Swifty” trap

Yes, seems about right. Or maybe not quite, though those two things are certainly THE two things when writing dialogue: we want (a) the dialogue itself to sound good and (b) the dialogue tags to disappear from the reader’s attention. We also want something else, I think — no, two other things: we want the dialogue to establish character and we also want it to pull the reader into the setting. That’s definitely a lot to load onto the dialogue, but we want ALL of that. Let’s take a look at the linked post … okay, we just start by making the typical point, that to make dialogue sound right, it needs to sound real, which means it can’t be too realistic. That part is straightforward.

But the linked post says “we want to show a little creativity” in dialogue tags, but I don’t actually think “creativity” is what we’re going for in dialogue tags. Wait, let me rephrase that. I mean, I don’t think creativity is the aim AT ALL when it comes to dialogue tags; that’s the wrong way to frame it. Everyone’s all concerned about dialogue tags, that part is definitely true, but tension between creativity and “Tom Swifties” is not the reason. The thing with dialogue tags is: we want them to be clear but invisible. That’s why “he said, she said, he said, she said” can be just as obtrusive as “Tom Swifties.” AND we want the dialogue itself to build character, while we want the tags to build setting as the people speaking look or move around.

All right, back to the linked post. Nine common problems. What are these nine problems? Ten are actually given. The last supposedly isn’t a problem, but I think it can be. Let’s take a look:

1) Big Chunks of Dialogue with no Action or Internal Thought

Is that a problem? Yes, it is. Personally, if I think a character’s been speaking for a good while and the reader needs a break, good time to walk across the room and look out the window. Pick up a wine glass. Something. Anything! But yes, break up a big chunk of dialogue with action or — I would say — reaction. If someone’s saying something fraught, someone else ought to react to that. It needn’t be with internal thought, but it should be something.

2) Too Much Realism

Too obvious to bother pointing out. Sure, don’t make dialogue sound the way people really sound.

3) Not Enough Realism

Oh, now I see why we included point (2) — to provide a parallel for point (3), a much more interesting and important bit of advice.

If you use grammar rules for all dialogue, the third-grade dropout will speak as correctly as the lawyer or the librarian. So will the recent immigrant from Uzbekistan and the hairdresser from Queens. They’ll all sound exactly the same, and nobody will make any grammatical mistakes or use any kind of regional colloquialism.

I think of this when someone on Quora asks which is better for writing a novel, Grammarly or Writer Pro. Neither, of course, unless you are able to disregard ALL advice about correct grammar and punctuation when writing everything in general, but dialogue in particular. Grammarly will try to make every character sound like Mr. Spock, only stupider. If you can’t decline advice you know is wrong, or worse if you can’t tell the advice is wrong, prescriptive grammar checkers are going to lead you gently to disaster.

I have literally seen students take advice from a grammar checker to turn “Tourette’s syndrome” into “turrets syndrome,” by the way.

4) Reader-Feeder Dialogue: As-you-know-Bob

I think this is an interesting category, because in fact you can absolutely write good, believable “As you know, Bob,” dialogue. It’s not even hard. You do it like this:

“Forgive me; of course you know all this. I fear I’m a little fretful.”

“Now, I think we all agree thus and so and this and that, right? So then the question is …”

“All right, so let’s make sure we’re all on the same page here …”

And so on. There are zillions of situations in which somebody will explain or comment on something that the other characters already know. That’s not surprising, as in the real world, there are also zillions of situations where that happens, and I don’t mean situations where the office pedant insists on explaining in excruciating detail something everyone already knows. I mean people do this casually all the time, and you can make it sound fine in a novel as well. Not that you should do it for no reason, but if you have a reason to do it, you can do it so smoothly not a single reader will complain. Most won’t even notice, probably.

5) Show-offy Dialogue that Doesn’t Move the Story

Oh, well, I don’t know. I’m kind of a fan of witty, snappy dialogue. I don’t have any great gift for witty banter, I admire that in other people’s novels, and frankly if the banter is sufficiently witty, I’ll appreciate it for itself, even if the character has been quite sufficiently established and even if it doesn’t move the story forward. I’m thinking of Lindsay Buroker here. She can write clunky sentences in non-dialogue prose, but her dialogue is great. Who else does really good, witty banter? Ilona Andrews, especially in later books. Oh, Laura Florand. I was sorry when Laura Florand stopped writing. Hopefully she just turned her attention to other things, because her contemporary romances were the ones that got me reading the genre in the first place.

6) No Dialogue Tags

Yes, I’m sure we’ve all read passages of dialogue where we got lost and had to count up the lines to see who is speaking which part of the dialogue. That’s not great. There should always be enough tags to stop that from happening.

7) Cryptic Dialogue Tags

It is true that “he said” or “she said” tags are mostly invisible to the reader, while “he spat” or “she screamed” draw attention to themselves — often not in a good way. But that doesn’t mean he said/she said tags are the best way to attribute dialogue. Those tags can be boring. They also can withhold essential information.

After reading this section of the linked post, I think this means, basically, that the dialogue isn’t doing anything for characterization. That you know the “he” is a guy, but nothing else. I would add that if the characters aren’t (a) thinking, (b) reacting, or (c) moving, that you have quite likely fallen into a white room and the dialogue is not only failing to do anything for characterization, but also failing to bring the reader into the setting.

8) Improbable Dialogue Tags

I think we can all imagine what this means. This is your Tom Swifty and its cousins. “Hissed hysterically,” and so on.

9) Overloaded Dialogue Tags.

“I hate you,” Bob said, throwing the empty Oreo bag at Stephanie and watching it sail over her head onto the floor by the garbage can.

“I hate you more,” Marlene said, opening the kitchen cupboard and getting her box of Valentine chocolates, which she dumped on the table in front of Bob.

Yes, there’s such a thing as TOO much setting in the dialogue, and the sample provided crosses that line.

This segues to point 10:

10) Sometimes NO Dialogue Tags are the Answer

“I hate you.” Bob threw the empty Oreo bag at Marlene. It sailed over her head and landed on the floor by the trash can.

“I hate you more.” Marlene opened the kitchen cupboard and took out her box of Valentine chocolates. She dumped the contents on the kitchen table in front of Bob.

This is the one that’s supposedly not a problem, but the answer, or I guess an answer.

My reaction here is: Come on. Those are tags — those are movement tags. When it comes to dialogue, movement tags are one of the most useful techniques you can have in your toolbox. These particular movement tags are still overloaded imo, which is why this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to dialogue. I agree that it does help to get rid of the “he said she said” part, but you can still pile too much movement into a tag and in this case, this is on the edge of doing that.

Not a bad post, though! I do think it’s better to ask not: What are common problems with dialogue? but instead: What is dialogue for and how can we do those things effectively? Having read this post, I think I would actually identify five different things dialogue can and should do. In no particular order — I started to try to arrange these in order of importance, but they’re all important —

Dialogue should:

  1. Engage the reader’s attention
  2. Convey information
  3. Build characterization
  4. Build the setting
  5. Move the plot forward

And while no particular bit of dialogue HAS to do all five things, I think a whole lot of dialogue DOES do all five.

Okay! Who’s especially great at dialogue? I mentioned three authors earlier, but I have a great appreciation for Lois McMaster Bujold in this regard. I specifically remember opening up one of the Vorkosigan books a long time ago, when I was just starting to write, to see how she handled dialogue. I thought at the time she was great with dialogue and I still think so now. Want to write great dialogue? Do it like that.

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7 thoughts on “Common problems with dialogue —”

  1. I think Sarah Caudwell was fabulous at dialogue. She wrote mysteries centered around four friends, and you do not need dialog tags to know who’s speaking because each character’s voice is so distinctive. I think she was having fun with these stories. She has one narrator for all four books, and at no point is the narrator’s gender ever revealed.

  2. Long conversations generally need a mix of “he said” vs. action tags vs. naked dialogue with implied speaker to be readable.

  3. I think Steven Brust does great dialogue. I particularly like the dialogue in The Phoenix Guards, though there are some reviewers who find it off-putting.

  4. Dorothy Sayers is my ur-example for dialogue that never needs tags to let you know exactly who’s speaking, even when the conversation runs on! Alice Degan / AJ Demas is another favorite; her character’s voices are always so clear and natural. And now that I’m looking at ALL FALSE DOCTRINE, the first four paragraphs show a deft diversity:

    “It isn’t a question of actually believing the teaching,” said Elsa, drilling two neat holes in the sand with the heels of her shoes. “It’s whether or not they believe in the authenticity of the manuscript, that’s all.”

    “Gosh, you had better hope that’s all,” said Harriet cheerfully. “It would be so tedious for you, wouldn’t it, to have your research interrupted every so often by cultists wanting to worship the thing you were studying? In my department, now, we don’t have such problems.”

    “Good heavens, Harriet—you study money! All sorts of people worship that.”

    “Oh, true. Have a grape while I consider a suitable riposte.” Harriet proffered the tin of green grapes that had been nestled on the blanket beside her.

    That gives us:
    1) a simple “said” plus movement tag
    2) “said adverbly” (with a great insight into personality)
    3) no tag at all
    4) movement tag

    And so much insight into the characters and their relationship already!

  5. I’d never heard of Tom Swifties before. I bet I could make a fun road trip game of coming up with new ones! (Camille traversed)

  6. Camille, happy to have provided you with a new game for road trips!

    Mary Beth, you’re so right; the reason Degan’s quiet opening with conversation works is because it’s GREAT conversation.

    Robert, I agree, Vlad has great snarky dialogue and commentary, and personally I also enjoy the very different dialogue in The Phoenix Guards as well. Brust just has a real knack for dialogue imo.

    Mary Catelli, yes, and that’s why advice to use only said or avoid said or use movement tags or whatever else is always FAR LESS USE than opening a book where the author is great at dialogue and looking to see how the dialogue is actually written.

  7. Georgette Heyer! Also Brian Jacques. Bonus for also pulling off understandable accents.

    I can’t count how many times I’ve now read *just* the opening of FROM ALL FALSE DOCTRINE. I really must pick that up!

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