Today, I want to talk a little bit about dialogue and offer up a few things I've learned about what's makes dialogue good and what's makes it bad. Part I of this two-part conversation is about the bad—the things that can distract a reader and deter agents. These "no-no's" are in no particular order.
It's not news that non-fiction writers employ a lot of lovely narrative text to enthrall their readers while fiction writers use more dialogue. The white space of frequent paragraphs makes for a faster read and moves along the plot of a novel. Unfortunately for either author, dialogue is not as easy to write as one might think.
Something that writers often have trouble with are the tags that go with dialogue. I know the tag "said" seems so totally overused that you might think it's distracting. Unless it is abused by using it in every sentence, the opposite is true. Readers glance over it, only taking note of who is speaking. On the other hand, exclamatory tags (screamed, yelled, etc.) can distract readers from the actual dialogue and can slow the pacing. Readers have to hesitate a moment to register the word. Plus, the author is telling the reader, rather than showing them by the action, the words, or the situation. Don't want to keep using "said?" Inserting action and non-verbal cues can help a reader understand what's going on. I'll talk about those on my next blog. A quick note about dialogue between two characters: Since a two-character dialogue is an especially fast-paced tool, put in a he-said/she-said tag about every fifth line or so to help the reader keep track of who's speaking.
If you're writing a period piece, i.e., set in the 19th century or in the 1950s, and unless you mean your story to be satire, it is imperative to use the language of the times. There are websites that can give authors the idioms of different eras. Look up "how to speak..." or "19th century vocabulary," et al., on your favorite search engine (as I did in the examples below) and verify any wording that seems suspect. Let's face it, a 19th century character just isn't going to use the words, "Have a nice day." Also, be true to your character's personality and heritage. Is your character from Alabama or from Brooklyn? There is huge difference in speech patterns and word usage, and neither of them is formal. Authors must get into each character's persona, and each will be different. So, be sure to write dialogue the way your character would say it.
Which brings me to phonetic dialect. Overuse of phonetically spelled dialect can make reading and understanding the story so difficult for some readers that they put down the book. You can show that a character is from a different place or time by the words they use and how they phrase their sentences. In Ireland, a flashlight is a torch; an elevator is a lift. The American reader will understand the meaning of the words by the context of the dialogue. No phonetics required. For those writers in love with dialect, perhaps they might consider using a bit of phonetic dialect, particularly at first, then going to grammar/sentence structure.
A huge no-no is using dialogue to insert large amounts of backstory or giving the character a long, uninterrupted narrative. Uninterrupted speech doesn't happen in real life, unless you're at a podium. Someone will interrupt and ask a question or make a comment. Backstory is best inserted in small bits and pieces, over a period of pages or even chapters. That way, the reader is kept wondering and questioning and turning pages. Also, don't use dialogue to repeat information that the reader already knows. If you've introduced your character as a policeman, don't, a few lines or pages later, have another character say, "Oh, you're a policeman." If there is a need to remind your reader, it'd be more natural to say something like, "How long have you been a cop?"
Finally, read your dialogue out loud after you've written it. Does it sound "natural?" Listen for sentences that are too complete. Would a 20th century character really say, "Please take a seat. I hope you find the food adequate?" It'd more likely be something like, "Sit down and eat. Hope you like it." Take a look at all those "uhs" you've inserted to show pauses...delete them. You might speak that way in real life, but don't put it on the written page. "Uhs" definitely slow your wonderful pacing.
Next time, I'll go into the things that make good dialogue important.
You-all guys keep on keeping on, and I'll try to the same.
PS: Jeff Johnston's photo is of a cedar waxwing flipping up its luncheon berry, taken on Dauphin Island, AL.
If you're in the Mobile, AL, area, Jeff is presenting a class on photographing "Backyard Birds, Bugs, and Blooms" on Tuesday, May 21, 2013. Call Calagaz Photography at 251-478-0487 for more info and to register.