Columns > Published on January 3rd, 2019

Dialogue: The Number One Mistake Newbie Writers Make

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

There are many online articles on how to write dialogue in fiction. Some cover the basics—for example, when you switch speakers, make sure you start a new paragraph—while others dig into the more advanced elements of dialogue, like conflict and subtext.

Which is all well and good. But there’s one issue I see over and over again in the dialogue of newbie writers, and I have yet to find a single bit of online advice that tackles it.

The number one issue I see in the scenes of writers new to the art of fiction is this: The dialogue reads like a play. Except in a play, you’d know who was speaking, because the character’s name would appear at the beginning of the line, and there might even be a bit of direction as well.

In the work of the newbie writer, the scene has no tags, and no information on tone or inflection; it also has no information on body language, and no information about where the scene is actually taking place. As a consequence, the scene seems to lift off into the ether, taking place in a vacuum, far removed from the “vivid and continuous dream” of actual fiction—a situation I think of as “the no-body problem.”

Avoid the no-body problem. Observe the following precepts.

1. Include Dialogue Tags

If only two people are talking, it’s often clear who’s speaking without the repetition of “he said, she said.” But even so, if the dialogue runs too long, your reader is likely to lose track of who’s talking—and if they do, boom, they’re no longer in the room with your characters, involved in what your characters are talking about. Instead, they’re in the room where they’re reading the book, wondering what the hell is going on in this story.

This situation is compounded when three or more characters are speaking. Many newer writers seem to think that who’s speaking is implied by what the person is saying, and that may even be true—but if the reader has to wait till the end of the line of dialogue to figure out who said it, based on what they said, the reader won’t be able to visualize the person (or hear) that character speaking the line as they’re actually reading it.

And that means, once again, boom—they’ve been jettisoned out of the scene, and into the land of WTH.

2. Include Emotional Inflection

We have bodies, and those bodies offer tons of clues as to what we’re feeling when we speak.

Your character just said, “Okay, fine.” Do they offer those words at face value (i.e., everything is fine), or are those words being spoken in anger, in resignation, in disgust—or? Many newer writers try to let us know by larding their dialogue with adverbs (“he said sheepishly”), but the stronger strategy is to let us know via tone and body language.

Because in real life, we have bodies, and those bodies offer tons of clues as to what we’re feeling when we speak. Moreover, understanding what other people are feeling when they speak is a super useful skill—in the course of human history, you can bet that lives have been saved or lost based on this sort of info, and fortunes as well. That’s why the human brain is super attuned to the intricacies of tone of voice and body language, and even pauses in the conversations, sighs, breaths, etc.

The upshot being, when you work this sort of information into your dialogue, your scenes will suddenly strike your reader as more realistic, not to mention interesting and involving. (Information on tone and body language can also act as a vehicle for subtext, offering clues about what the character may be feeling but not coming right out and saying.)

3. Include Information on Setting

There are some writers who never write dialogue without including “stage business”—that is, having their characters actually doing something as they speak. It’s a smart strategy. First, because (for example) in folding the laundry, making coffee, or trying to get their car started, the characters have a way to reveal what they’re feeling (see above, body language), and second because it keeps the reader anchored in where it is the scene is actually taking place.

Whether or not you adopt the stage-business strategy, your scenes will be stronger if you include information on the setting at regular intervals in your dialogue, whether it’s via a moment when a character looks off through the window at the snow outside or a brief aside in which they note that the dog has once again tracked his muddy paws through the hall. Without at least a bit of this sort of info, after a few pages of dialogue, it’s likely that your reader will have no idea where the characters are actually supposed to be.

The good news for those new to writing fiction: If you include all three of these elements in your dialogue, your scenes will automatically stand out among those of your fellow noobs.

Which means you can then move on to mastering the cool, advanced, tricky bits—like conflict and subtext. =)

Questions? Comments? Talk to me in the comments.

Get Fish in the Dark at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Hot Season at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Story Magazine, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, and Southwestern American Literature, along with many other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West, and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, and has served as a freelance editor and book coach since 2010.

Similar Columns

Explore other columns from across the blog.

Book Brawl: Geek Love vs. Water for Elephants

In Book Brawl, two books that are somehow related will get in the ring and fight it out for the coveted honor of being declared literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves. This month,...

The 10 Best Sci-Fi Books That Should Be Box Office Blockbusters

It seems as if Hollywood is entirely bereft of fresh material. Next year, three different live-action Snow White films will be released in the States. Disney is still terrorizing audiences with t...

Books Without Borders: Life after Liquidation

Though many true book enthusiasts, particularly in the Northwest where locally owned retailers are more common than paperback novels with Fabio on the cover, would never have set foot in a mega-c...

From Silk Purses to Sows’ Ears

Photo via Moviegoers whose taste in cinema consists entirely of keeping up with the Joneses, or if they’re confident in their ignorance, being the Joneses - the middlebrow, the ...

Cliche, the Literary Default

Original Photo by Gerhard Lipold As writers, we’re constantly told to avoid the cliché. MFA programs in particular indoctrinate an almost Pavlovian shock response against it; workshops in...

A Recap Of... The Wicked Universe

Out of Oz marks Gregory Maguire’s fourth and final book in the series beginning with his brilliant, beloved Wicked. Maguire’s Wicked universe is richly complex, politically contentious, and fille...

Reedsy | Editors with Marker (Marketplace Editors)| 2024-05

Submitting your manuscript?

Professional editors help your manuscript stand out for the right reasons.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.