4 Mistakes Beginning Writers Make while Writing Dialogue

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Writing dialogue ought to be easy. We spend most of our waking lives speaking – either to ourselves or with others. (What? Is it just me who speaks to himself?) And yet when it comes to writing fiction, dialogue is the one thing over which beginning writers trip the most. In fact, an editor friend recently remarked that to make judgement on a writer’s ability, she always looks at the dialogue bits. If they’re well written, she knows the writer is worth reading.

Here are four don’ts of writing dialogue. If you jump over these four pitfalls in your writing consistently, I promise you that your dialogue will get better in no time.

1. Characters addressing each other

“Ron, I heard about the party the other night.”
“Oh yeah, Karen? What did you hear?”
“Ron, I heard you were drunk.”
“Drunk? Karen, you know me better than that.”
“Do I? I thought I did, Ron. Now I’m not so sure.”
“Karen, I don’t even drink—I mean, not much.”

Need I say more?

2. Adjectives and adverbs in tags

“Hi Steve.” John expostulated and reached out to shake Steve’s hand.
“Oh Elizabeth,” Kenneth harkened as he danced her around the room. “Will you marry me?”

When in doubt, use ‘said’. In fact, use ‘said’ at all times.

“We’re going to Hawaii!” Curtis said excitedly.
“I hate Hawaii,” Patty answered tiredly.

Adverbs are generally bad, but in dialogue tags they grow and become unpardonable. Always ask yourself if you can do without the adverb. Most of the times your answer will be yes. If it is not yes, get rid of it anyway and change the way you wrote your words. In dialogue, it’s important that your character’s words carry the emotion. If you have to tell the reader with an adverb every time, you’re taking the lazy route out.

3. Using action verbs in dialogue tags.

‘I love you,’ she smiled.
She sneezed, ‘I have a cold.’

In both these examples, ‘smile’ and ‘sneeze’ are action verbs. Characters can either say something and sneeze later, or sneeze and say something later. They cannot sneeze out a word. Just like they cannot smile out a sentence. The right way of writing this is:

‘I love you,’ she said smiling. OR ‘I love you.’ She smiled.
She sneezed. ‘I have a cold.’ OR She sneezed and said, ‘I have a cold.’

4. Writing ‘Who cares?’ dialogue

“Joe, this is Sally.”
Sally stuck out her hand. “Hi Joe.”
“Hi Sally,” Joe said, shaking her hand.
“Pleased to meet you,” Sally said.
“Me too,” said Joe.
“Do you live around here?” asked Sally.
“A couple of miles from here,” Joe answered. “Over on Main Street.”
Sally smiled. “Oh yes. I have a friend who lives over there.”
“What’s your friend’s name?”

Have you said ‘Who cares!’ yet? Your reader has probably gone to sleep by now. While it’s important to write dialogue that sounds like real life, it’s also important to take out all the boring bits from real-life dialogue. Your readers want to see your characters speaking about the story. All small-talk should therefore be cut to a minimum.

Do you have any more tips for writing better dialogue? Feel free to weigh in in the comments section! 

Image Courtesy: The Starving Novelist

Comments

  1. Nice. Very interesting. But point 2 can be used with little dilution. I see a lot of adverbs in dialogue tags in massively successful books.

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    • Yes, that is the case with most of these ‘rules’, Amit. You will always find examples from published fiction that break the rules. But generally, these writers do something else to compensate for the rule-breaking. For instance, a writer who uses a lot of adverbs in her dialogue tags (like Agatha Christie, for instance) may be a master plotter. Maybe her readers will forgive some stylistic lapses as long as she delivers on that front.

      As a beginning writer, the best way forward is to learn the rules and obey them. Once you become more confident in your craft, you will know when to break them without your readers noticing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I find all the posts in this section very useful. I find almost all the writers dislike ‘adverbs’. Wonder why.

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    • Hi Hariharan,

      I think the main reason is because adverbs often make the sentence longer without adding much in way of meaning. So fiction writers, who thrive on brevity and tightness, dislike them. It’s much better writing form to attempt writing nouns and verbs rather than using ‘descriptors’ like adjectives and adverbs.

      Like

  3. As a novice, I still make major mistakes while writing. When I read certain posts out loud, I realize how boring they are to me. God save the readers! 😀

    Love the post!

    Like

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