Dialogue: The Number One Mistake Newbie Writers Make

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.

Image of Fish in the Dark: A Play
Author: Larry David
Price: $12.25
Publisher: Grove Press (2015)
Binding: Paperback, 112 pages
Image of Hot Season
Author: Susan Defreitas
Price: $14.88
Publisher: Harvard Square Editions (2016)
Binding: Paperback, 212 pages
Susan DeFreitas

Column by Susan DeFreitas

Susan DeFreitas has never been able to choose between fantasy and reality, so she lives and writes in both. A first-generation American of Caribbean descent, she was born and raised in rural west Michigan and spent fourteen years in the high country of Arizona before moving to Portland, Oregon, where she has served as a collaborative editor with Indigo Editing & Publications since 2010. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a 2017 Gold IPPY Award; her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been featured in more than thirty journals and anthologies. She enjoys mysterious books, strange weather, thinking machines, and sketchy characters.

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Comments

Natso's picture
Natso from Mongolia is reading Moby Dick February 28, 2019 - 5:18pm

Great post. I have a question: the punctuation and position of the question tags.

1. "[Dialogue]," she said.
2. She said, "[Dialogue]."
3. "[Dialogue1]," she said, "[Dialogue2]."

Which one is less accepted? I've seen all three in variations, but was told one of them was super outdated and can't remember which.

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa March 26, 2019 - 9:58am

All three are totally acceptable. Number two is considered outdated, but really, whatever! Here's the only one that I have a problem with: 

"[Dialogue..........................................................................

.........................................................................................

........................................................................................

........................," [NAME] said. 

Because the way this is structured, we have to listen to someone say all of this before we have any idea who is speaking. Breaks the fictive dream, because we're wondering the whole time.