Columns > Published on February 23rd, 2015

The Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue

Ursula K. Le Guin has said that scenes with dialogue are where emotion happens in fiction. According to the emerging body of neuroscience on fiction, such scenes are also where fiction most clearly approximates actual lived experience, that "vivid and continuous dream" of which John Gardner spoke.

That may help to explain why readers love dialogue—some so much so that they'll skip right over your meticulously written descriptions and summaries to get straight to the goods: people talking to each other. 

But dialogue is also a place where things can easily go south. As an editor, I have become far too acquainted with all the ways that otherwise competent writers can absolutely hamstring their fiction—precisely at the point it counts most. 

1. Said Bookisms

Say what you will about the Bible, The Prince, and Fifty Shades of Grey—as far as I'm concerned, one of the documents most destructive to the project of civilization is Said Is Dead. Starting in the eighties and continuing to this day, many elementary-school English teachers have seen fit to foist this guide upon their hapless students, to the detriment of us all. 

In it, the writer is instructed to throw over plain old said and asked for such highfalutin alternatives as queried, snarled, intoned, and god help us, even cajoled. Which, after all, are more specific verbs, and they help us avoid repetition. So what's the problem?

The problem is that writing dialogue with words like this—just like the twenty-five-cent synonym you found in the thesaurus that you'd never actually say—tends to draw attention to you, the writer, at precisely the point when the reader wants you to get out of the way and give them a  moment alone with the characters. Suffice to say, it's generally not the kind of attention you want.

The other issue is that, to work, precise verbs must be used precisely. Could your character really snarl that line? Or intone it? Or cajole it? When in doubt, stick to said and asked.

Perhaps the number one issue that I encounter with dialogue in otherwise competent fiction is a lack of visuals on the characters as they speak.

2. Impossible Verbing

A separate but connected issue, and one newish writers are prone to: "I don't know," he shrugged. You cannot shrug a line of dialogue—or nod it, or issue it in any other way but through your mouth. 

All of which may seem obvious. But even more experienced writers can sometimes have a character laugh or sigh or cry a line that could not logically be produced in any of these ways. 

3. Lack of Body Language

Perhaps the number one issue that I encounter with dialogue in otherwise competent fiction is a lack of visuals on the characters as they speak. By visuals I mean facial expressions, gestures, and actions—all those things that show us not just what someone is saying but how they feel about it. 

This may seem like a small point, but it is, in fact, huge. Because it's generally agreed that in any conversation, less than fifty percent of the information we're taking in is actually from the words themselves—everything else, we gather from body language. (If you're in doubt about this, just turn off the sound sometime on a movie or television show and see how much of it you can still follow.)

The upshot is this: if you're writing dialogue that's not regularly punctuated by visuals of your characters, you're not creating scenes that feel real.

Body language in dialogue is a device that will produce traction on many levels for you.

  • Along with dialogue tags, it will help to punctuate your dialogue with those all-important beats.
  • It can help to cover what would otherwise be awkward transitions in subject matter or tone.
  • It contributes in a big way toward characterization.
  • It can actually take the place of those repetitive dialogue tags, letting us know who's talking.
  • Because body language gives us information about how the character feels, including it before a line of dialogue can tell your reader how that line of dialogue should be interpreted. 

There are even higher-level tricks available here—for instance, by contrasting the emotional clues of body language with what the character actually says, you can create subtext, tension, and complex characterization. 

But suffice to say, whatever you're trying to do with fiction, ignore body language at your own risk.

4. Lack of Stage Business

Also connected but separate: stage business is a term borrowed from theater that refers to tasks your characters perform while speaking. These aren't gestures and expressions, but rather, some action ostensibly unconnected to the dialogue—such as, say, doing the laundry, checking email, or unloading the groceries.

Employing stage business can also do a number of important things for your scenes.

  • It can operate as a kind of sleight of hand, making it less obvious where the dialogue is going.
  • It can provide a long string of those essential beats, punctuating your dialogue in a way that doesn't force you to keep coming up with expressions and gestures (while still revealing emotional subtext, if you handle it right).
  • It will help your reader keep track of the physical environment of the scene, which can otherwise get a bit fuzzy in the course of a long, drawn-out conversation.
  • It is just plain realistic, because even in the most intimate of conversations, we're still generally doing something, even if it's just drinking a beverage. 

It's for these reasons, I assume, that novelist Ben Percy says that he never writes dialogue without stage business. Never. 

5. On-the-Nose Dialogue

We all know that dialogue is the place where you want to push the conflict of the story out as far as you can, leading simmering tensions to boil, difficult truths to be spoken, and lives to be changed. 

But there's another side to that, and it's the natural resistance we all have to stating how we really feel when how we really feel may

  • A) hurt another person's feelings or piss them off,
  • B) reflect poorly on us, and/or
  • C) not allow us to get the kids to school on time. For that reason, when characters just come out and say how they really feel, unprovoked, the effect is generally unrealistic.

Not only that, but it's kind of boring. It's as if all the characters have gone through too much therapy. ("Well, Tom, I'm upset that you're sleeping wth Lisa. It makes me feel like you don't love me.") This, to my mind, is what Flannery O'Connor meant by fiction being about "mystery and manners." Manners are, in part, what we hide the truth behind, creating mystery—and if the folks who study neuroscience are right, there's nothing readers enjoy more than figuring out what fictional characters really think and feel. 

Of course, there has to be a point when the dam breaks, the truth (no matter how inconvenient) comes out, and the kids do not, in fact, get to school on time. A time when someone must finally deal with this shit. But such moments will ultimately seem far more convincing (and create far more drama) if your characters initially resist such revelations and talk around the subject instead of tackling it head on.

6. Everyone Here Sounds Alike

Do all your characters sound the same? Worse—do they all sound like you? If so, your reader is likely to find it hard to keep track of them. 

There's plenty that's been said about voice in fiction, but nowhere is voice more important than when your characters are actually speaking. A witty turn of phrase can reveal a character's intelligence; a hilarious exchange will reveal the exact contours of a friendship; an unusual word choice will alert us to an unusual character. In short, dialogue is characterization, and perhaps the most potent form available to us in fiction. If you're not utilizing it to its capacity, you're missing an opportunity.

Ask yourself, what is this character's age, culture, class, level of education? Where are they from? What subcultures might they have been a part of? How does their profession influence the way they see the world? How have their life experiences influenced their perspective? All of these things can influence both the words that your characters use and how they use them.

7. Conversational Filler

As a final note, dialogue in fiction is not entirely naturalistic. Meaning, there's a lot of stuff we say in real life that you generally shouldn't include in your dialogue. This includes the obvious ums and ahs and hmms, but also the sort of purely transitional stuff we often throw in, such as well, anyway, so, in any case, etc., as well as the sort of small talk (hello! how are you? fine, thanks) that precedes real conversation.

It's not a hard and fast rule, by any means; in the right hands, purely transitional language can imply emotional subtext and small talk can be fraught with consequence. But while there are many ways that dialogue can benefit from a naturalistic treatment—by employing sentence fragments, conjunctions, and characters who speak at cross purposes (rather than responding directly to one another)—this is one area where you generally want to write an idealized version of conversation rather than conversation itself.

Of course, every reader, writer, and editor has her own list of dialogue's deadliest sins. What did I miss? Let's talk. =)

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.

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