The Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue

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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. =)

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

Toro's picture
Toro from Britain is reading The Thin Blue Line February 23, 2015 - 9:23am

in relation to Said Bookisms.

There is a risk in the use of too many 'said' in a work.

When there is an extensive piece of dialogue I have read (in mainstream published authors) sections where the sentences are short, and everyone finishes with, Character name said.

It gets distracting. It is lazy.

While we don't want characters expostulating and ejaculating all over the place, neither do I want to read the word 'said' thirty times in a page of three hundred words.

Of course, the issue would be solved by the inclusion of two of your other points - Body Language and Stage Business.

Making the characters people who do things in a space, while talking, helps prevent the over-use of said that is a natural part of white rooming.

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa February 23, 2015 - 11:10am

An astute observation, Toro. There's also starting the line of dialogue with the tag, rather than adding it at the end, but the alternatives you've pointed out generally strike me as stronger. 

Matt Oddfield's picture
Matt Oddfield from nowhere in particular is reading Embassytown February 23, 2015 - 1:33pm

I get the feeling the alternatives to "said" and "asked" only serve their purpose if there was no other way to indicate the way a line was spoken. Although "cajole" would definitely be out of place at all times. I also enjoy reading a dialogue where the tags can be dropped altogether, and you still follow it. Requires strong characterisation, this one, and can't always be done even in that case.

Great article. Definitely Pocket-ing it.

jlapier's picture
jlapier from Portland, OR is reading The Echo by James Smythe February 23, 2015 - 2:06pm

Great sins! In particular, #5 and #3 make a great tag-team: when a character isn't explicitly saying how they're feeling, body language goes a long way toward telling the reader how they really feel. Too take it a little futher, I would advice writers to remember their point of view in these situations. A POV character doesn't see their own facial expressions (unless they're looking in a mirror), and much of body language is unconcious. You know those of us that "talk with our hands"? We don't do that on purpose. :)

I agree, when a POV character is talking to a non-POV, the non-POV body language is very important because it's an insight we have to the meaning and feelings behind the words. But for the POV, in place of body language I like to think about physical sensations: burning, discomfort, aching, emptiness, dizzyness, blurred vision, shortness of breath, floating, itching, etc, etc. Really only works if you're doing something that's close POV (as most contemporary fiction is these days).

One last note: these kinds of guidelines, I like to think of as revision guidelines. Personally, I write dialogue best when I leave everything out - the tags, the body language, the stage - I write purely the words being spoken. Then I go cut out the unnecessaries (sin #7) and add staging/body language whereever it works. Then the saids come in only when necessary to identify who is speaking.

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa February 23, 2015 - 9:32pm

Great advice, Jason. And as far as the POV character goes, you can also use action--we might not be aware of our own facial expressions, but if we reach out and place a gentle hand on the shoulder of, say, a good friend who has obviously had too much to drink, we are generally aware of what we're doing. Cheers!

KatHunter's picture
KatHunter February 23, 2015 - 10:07pm

There is a great transcription betwen Dankia Patrick and this driver who bumped her and made her crash her car in this recent Nascar race. I was reading this over and realized how this actually shows real life dynamic dialogue between two people in a very heated argument. Danica was so upset she started to do that thing where you repeat the same point over and over and over at different points in the conversation, and that can be used to a great narrative effect without being overdone, because we all do that whether we're conscious of it or not. It was something I really took into the writing tool box that made the writing feel more authetnic if and when something trumatic happened between two characters. I'd also like to add to this list an over abundance of wit is sometimes detrimental, all us writers would like to have that great thing to say back but I've noticed comedies especially lately have characters who are too witty to be believable making back and forths at each other. It can be seen as a kind of Tarantinoing gone wild.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb February 24, 2015 - 12:17pm

Great column, thanks for this. I think #6 is the hardest to get past.

Casey Hadford's picture
Casey Hadford February 24, 2015 - 6:49pm

This is very reassuring to read! I think I've finally found a balance that works for my novel.

Wingedream's picture
Wingedream from Cuttack,Orissa-India is reading The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy February 24, 2015 - 9:39pm

learnt a lot.Thanks.Incidentally, I never wrote nothing.

xfilion's picture
xfilion from UK is reading Hearts in Atlantis February 25, 2015 - 5:21am

Don't mean to be picky, but there are a couple of spelling mistakes found in — Said Bookisms, third para. Lack of Body Language, second para. Could do with another edit?

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 2, 2015 - 11:09am

I disagree with #2.

"It's right there," he pointed to the map makes things move more smoothly than "it's right there," he said pointing to the map. Or even "it's right there." He pointed to the map, which makes it sound like he talked then pointed, when it's actually simultaneous.

It's pretty obvious that someone is saying it what with the quotation marks and all, so you put the name/pronoun in to give a tag if needed, work the "stage action" in right then and there... Now we're complying with #4 in the most efficient and noninterruptive way possible. 

 

 

Edee Lemonier's picture
Edee Lemonier from Vancouver, WA is reading Everything I can get my hands on. March 8, 2015 - 7:05pm

Thuggish, I see what you're saying. But you could also write He pointed to the map. "It's right there." But I agree with #2. Ever hear someone read a line of dialogue with a long stage direction as the tag? Listen for the weird voice throughout with the odd inflection at the end. Totally unnatural and distracting as a reader.  

#2 might be my favorite point, though I may have a new favorite tomorrow. While I totally appreciate the need to show what's happening, it doesn't need to be done as a dialogue tag. You can say or ask something, or even shout or yell. But shrugging isn't how words come out. 

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 24, 2015 - 9:28am

Not only does it not need to be done with a dialogue tag, doing so (as in the following) is grammatically incorrect:  "It's right there," he pointed to the pointed to the map. 

The second example provided by Thuggish proves the point well, though--and is, in fact, one of my favorite hacks for shedding unnecessary dialogue tags. 

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 28, 2015 - 8:06am

Wait, hold on... I think I might have missed something-

The example of:

"It's right there." He pointed to the map.

...does not violate what you're saying in #2?

But 

"It's right there," he pointed to the map.

...does?

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 30, 2015 - 10:23am

Yep. =)

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 31, 2015 - 7:39pm

. . .

Hrrrrrgggmmmrrrnnnggggrrrm... alright fine I'll buy it.

Joe Hickman's picture
Joe Hickman July 15, 2015 - 8:12pm

Number 1 on your list brought back memories. I was editor of my college paper and I assigned a new reporter to interview the head of campus security.  He returned the next day and proudly placed his finished work in front of me.  "'Blah, blah, blah' he said.  'Blah, blah, blah' he said.  'Blah, blah, blah' he said...."  My aspiring reporter produced a 500 word article consisting of nothing but quotes followed by "he said." I learned that day to be detailed in my corrections.  All I told him was to vary things up a bit. He returned a few hours later, having substituted every synonym in the thesaurus for the word said.  I had to stifle my laughter when our head of campus security "waxed eloquently".

Number 5 in your list reminded me of the Hemingway short story, Hills Like White Elephants.  The main point of the story, whether the woman should get an abortion, was never explicitly stated, but hidden in the subtext and the interesting use of a simile, hills like white elephants, as a metaphor for her pregnancy.  Hemingway reminds us that subjects exist, too painful or too taboo, which are ofte. Danced sriund and never explicitly stated.

Also have to mention that I stumbled on this website today, and am hooked.

Jake MacPhail's picture
Jake MacPhail from Columbus, OH is reading Crime and Punishment August 14, 2015 - 10:10am

Thanks, especially the points about stage business and idealized realism.

jake