Dialogue Dilemmas – Part 1

Ground Rules
Dialogue is straightforward if you know how to do it properly, and shouldn’t present any problems, but lately I’ve seen many self-published books that use incorrect or badly structured dialogue. Writers are still getting it wrong.
If you want to go down the route of traditional publishing, i.e. finding an agent or publisher, then it’s paramount that the silly mistakes found all over self-published work isn’t apparent when you submit to an editor for scrutiny.
Dialogue should be correct and properly structured, which means writers should be aware of ground rules. Once you know those ground rules, you can concentrate on the technicality of constructing dialogue.
Move the story forward
Firstly, dialogue is necessary to move the story forward. That means it should be concise, it should get to the point and relay pertinent information to the reader as part of the continuing story arc.
Dialogue should never turn into an info-dump - in other words, don’t fill your scenes with huge chunks of dialogue relaying backstory or unimportant details. This can put your reader off, plus it means the story arc has lost focus.
Here’s a simple example common to many writers – the dialogue backstory/info dump:
Amy stared at the grey slime. ‘We’ll need to get samples of this stuff.’
‘I know all about molecular biology because I studied it at university and I spent several years training in the field,’ Dan said. ‘That means I’m well qualified to assess this situation with my experience, I’ve worked with most of the top biologists…’
This is enough to send the reader to sleep. The information about Dan and his qualifications and experience isn’t necessary in dialogue because it sounds too stilted and feigned. Background information should be sprinkled through the narrative as part of his characterisation.
The dialogue could be written like this instead:
Amy stared at the grey slime. ‘We’ll need to get samples of this stuff.’
‘I agree,’ Dan said.  ‘I can run several tests back at the lab, see if we can extract some DNA and find out what creature this came from.’
The second example is more concise; it gets to the point and moves the story forward.
The other thing to remember is that dialogue should be realistic, to a point. In everyday life, conversations can drag on about peripheral, unimportant stuff and often filled with strange pauses and lots of ‘ums’ etc. They may say ‘Er…’ or ‘eh?’ a lot. They especially say, ‘you know’ and ‘like’ as well. For example:
‘He was like, you know, really friendly and everything, and, well, I really liked him and I wished I’d given him my number, you know?’
The dialogue can still retain a sense of realism, but without the colloquialisms. These are the things you leave out. For example:
‘He was friendly and I really liked him. I just wish I’d given him my number.’
Another important ground rule is to use correct dialogue tags. ‘He said’ and ‘she said’ become almost invisible to the reader after a while; however, writers shouldn’t rely on them too heavily. Instead, structure sentences so you don’t always have to use them.
The same rule applies for the use of more descriptive tags such as ‘she whined’ or ‘he cried’ etc.  Many writers still use these, when in reality they’re rarely required if you’ve got sentence structures right. For example:
‘Why did you do it?’ she wailed.
The use of ‘she wailed’ is unnecessary and weakens the dialogue. The way to cut out the need for them is to insert narrative in order to show character the emotions, for example:
Tears fell across her cheeks. Her voice pitched. ‘Why did you do it?’
This version removes the need for silly dialogue tags and shows the reader that the character is emotional simply by mentioning the tears and pitched voice. It’s that easy to step away from the habit of unnecessary dialogue tags.
Dialogue Length
Another similar method to the example above is to add character actions in between dialogue to add a touch of realism. If you find that you’ve written a particularly long section of dialogue, then character actions helps break up the dialogue into manageable sections, for example:
‘It was only when I got to the bedroom that I noticed she’d gone,’ Dan said. ‘I never heard a thing, not the door opening or the stairs creaking, absolutely nothing, but I guess you don’t when in a deep sleep.’ He rubbed his temples. ‘Now I feel so terrible that I didn’t wake, I couldn’t help her…’
You can see that the insertion of action breaks the length of dialogue and helps pace the sentences. It’s not a must, but they’re a good way to slip in little snippets of tone, tension and emotion, and they also allow the reader to pause briefly before continuing.
Vary the dialogue lengths, give them pace. Contrary to bad advice out there, not every sentence needs to be short and to the point in the belief that reader’s attention spans demand it. That’s pretty demeaning to your reader. Longer sections of dialogue are just acceptable as short ones. Just make sure you pace them and add character actions to break them up and make them interesting.
This seems to bother a lot of writers because they assume that they have to give their characters a variety of accents to make the character more real – meaning they have to write dialogue using that accent.
This is not a bad thing, if used correctly and sparingly, but the down side is that you could confuse the reader if it’s used too much. Reading it will become a chore; it will put the reader off, and your character will sound like a caricature.
The rule is always about balance. Use dialect, but don’t let it overshadow the dialogue. Less is sometimes more.
Unlike your narrative, which must always be grammatically correct, dialogue is the exception. It doesn’t have to be grammatically correct, especially with characters using dialect or slang, because this forms part of the character’s voice and it retains a hint of realism of actual speech.
That said, as with dialects, don’t overdo it, otherwise it becomes annoying to the reader. Keep a balance and don’t let it overshadow the rest of the dialogue.
So, those are the ground rules. The thing to remember with dialogue is that it is multifunctional; it does many things all at once. Dialogue sets the scene, it imparts pertinent information, it foreshadows, it enables characterisation and realism and it moves the story forward as part of the story arc.
Next week we’ll look at the technical aspects of dialogue structure, and more importantly, how to format dialogue correctly.

Next week: Dialogue Dilemmas Part 2


  1. pretty nice blog, following :)

  2. I was unsure about the dialect thing. A lot of my characters are hillbillies, hippies, cowboys, and truckers. Thanks for the tip.

    Did I spell hillbillies right?


    1. Hey there Drift,

      Hillbillies is correct.

      Dialect wise, a sprinkling here and there to let your reader get a feel, but good characterisation means they'll 'hear' those dialects/accents in their heads when they read the dialogue.

  3. "He was like, you know, really friendly and everything, and, well, I really liked him and I wished I’d given him my number, you know?"

    It might just be me, but in a very specific circumstance I would have to say I like this passage better than your correction. If everybody in the story talked like this it would be a nightmare, but if it's only this one character, and the character is someone we're meant to find kind of ditzy, her over-use of "like" and "you know" can say a lot more about her character in a sentence than pages of description.

    Then again, dialogue is absolutely my weakest point. Every time I write dialogue I wind up going over it maybe dozens of times until it feels right to me.

    1. Hi Brian,

      Good point, I hear what you are saying. It was merely an example of the kind of dialogue that a good many writers still use. It's the kind you should use very sparingly - just to give your characters a bit of flair, so by all means use a bit of slang here and there, or a few colloquialisms, but so many writers continue to fill their entire novel with this kind of drivel, which may hinder your chances of impressing an agent or editor.


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