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6 Common Dialogue Mistakes in Writing

Hi everyone, Kami here. Dave was kind enough to let me do a guest post on his blog this week, and I decided to bring you one about some of the common mistakes I see in dialogue as an editor. (And you can learn more about me below.)

1. Dialogue Tags Don’t Match the Dialogue.

Some people in the industry say writers should only ever use “said” and “asked” as dialogue tags. This is because it forces the dialogue itself to do the work. Personally, I’m not wholly against alternative dialogue tags (“groaned,” “cried,” “yelled,” “lamented,” etc.) when used in moderation. I think they can be particularly effective when the dialogue itself, and the context of the story, can’t portray the way that it’s said. For example:

“That’s great,” Melody groaned.

But sometimes the chosen dialogue tag honestly doesn’t make sense. Such as . . .

“Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes,” Milo whined.

The direct dialogue doesn’t sound like whining. The content doesn’t sound like something to whine about, and the structure doesn’t sound like whining. (And I doubt in a story it could logically pass off as whining.) That dialogue tag doesn’t seem to fit.

“Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes,” Milo said matter-of-factly.

That’s better. But sometimes I see weird combos like this:

“Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes,” Milo whined matter-of-factly.

I don’t know about you, but “whined matter-of-factly” sounds like something that’s pretty difficult to pull off.

Make sure if you do use an alternative tag that what you write makes sense.

2. Modifiers Don’t Match the Dialogue.

Some people really love using modifying phrases (participial phrases) with their dialogue tags. Again, I’m not against this, but like anything, it can be overused, and more than that, it needs to make sense. A modifying phrase after a dialogue tag is adding information to the dialogue tag.  It works as an adjective. Here is a fine example.
“Do you ever sunburn?” Manny asked, squeezing sunscreen into his palm.

“Squeezing sunscreen into his palm” is a modifying phrase–it adds information to “Manny asked.” Because it functions similarly to an adjective, it’s also saying that Manny squeezed the sunscreen into his palm at the same time he asked “Do you ever sunburn?” Not after. The same time.

Here is a problem example:
“Grab the gun!” I yelled, holding my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

You cannot yell and hold your breath at the same time. Luckily, you can easily fix it:
“Grab the gun!” I yelled, and I held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

Other times, the participial phrase doesn’t match because it doesn’t fit with the dialogue (usually it doesn’t logically match in length).
“Yes,” she said, putting her dress, socks, and pajamas in a suitcase and then the luggage on the floor.

You can’t tell me she put her dress, socks, AND pajamas in a suitcase AND then put the luggage on the floor at the same time that she said “Yes.”  Unless she’s Quicksilver from X-Men, it’s not possible to do all those things during a one-syllable word. So this needs some work.

Some writers say you should try to leave out participial phrases with dialogue tags altogether, since cognitively it is difficult for the reader to imagine both things happening at once. I’m personally okay with it and don’t think it’s a big deal. They just need to make sense.

3. Improper Punctuation

I think probably every writer struggles at some point with figuring out how to punctuate dialogue. Let’s be honest, to a beginner, it’s not that clear-cut, and if you don’t know the rules, it might seem somewhat random.
Ultimately it gets down to where you place the dialogue tag. For a full rundown on punctuation, you can check out this post: https://www.septembercfawkes.com/2019/03/how-to-punctuate-dialogue.html

4. Maid-and-Butler Dialogue

Sometimes an author is trying to get information to the reader through dialogue. And it’s obvious. And feels contrived. Maid-and-butler dialogue is a term that originates from stories where the maid and butler would tell each other things they already both know. For example:
“Voldemort was a very dark wizard who killed Harry’s parents,” Dumbledore said to Snape.
“Voldemort was one of the most powerful wizards in history, as you know, and he went to school here, at Hogwarts,” Snape replied.

Dumbledore and Snape both know these things probably better than anyone, but they’re talking this way solely for the benefit of the audience (by the way, this example is made-up). The reality is, as a writer, you often do need to convey information to the reader through dialogue. One way this is handled is by having a character speaking to another character who doesn’t know this information. Another way is to convey that info through subtext within the dialogue.

5. Straightforward Dialogue

Often the most powerful dialogue is indirect. This is because it contains subtext. What’s cool about subtext, is that it happens when the audience comes to a conclusion about what they are reading. So, it invites the audience to participate and experience the story, instead of just “spectating” it.

Here is an example of terrible, straightforward dialogue:
“Jennifer, I love you! I love you more than the moon and the sun,” Cole said.

“I didn’t like you at first, but I guess over time I came to like you too,” Jennifer said. “Maybe we can be friends for now though.”

Straightforward dialogue releases tension. It has a place in storytelling for sure (like . . . when it’s time for the tension to be released). But most of your dialogue should not be so straightforward. In life, people often speak indirectly about things, and their words reveal more than what they are actually saying. Good dialogue does too. It says more than what’s on the page.

6. Overusing Names

“I am so mad, Fred.”
“What happened, Melanie?”
“Oh, Fred, I just don’t know what to do. Jacob lied to me about the concert tickets.”
“Melanie . . . I’m so sorry to hear that.”

Newer writers have the tendency to overuse character names in dialogue, but in reality, we don’t actually say each other’s names that much. This tends to crop up because writers want an emphasis or to make the moment feel more intimate—that’s okay, but you don’t want to overdo it.

Quick Tips for Writing Great Dialogue

Now, it only seems fair that I leave everyone with some quick tips on how to write great dialogue.

– Use character voice.
Remember this equation: What a character says + how she says it = Voice

– Use subtext
Remember this: Subtext almost always employs contradictions of one sort or another. Subtext happens when the audience comes to a conclusion that explains those contradictions. (learn more here: https://www.septembercfawkes.com/2015/03/how-to-write-whats-not-written-subtext.html )

– Create character circuitry
Remember this: While it’s fine for characters to simply respond to each other, it’s more interesting when each line of dialogue builds off what the other just said.

– Use callbacks occasionally
Remember this: A callback is when the writer brings back a line that happened earlier in the story but uses it in a new context. For example, in Pirates of the Caribbean, there are multiple lines about the rum being gone, but all in different contexts.

. . . I could go on, but this post is getting a bit long.

Just as a note, I have a special offer for those reading this post. The first four people to book my editing services and mention this post will get a discount. $100 off a content edit for a full novel manuscript. Or, $200 off a line edit for a full novel manuscript. Learn more about my editing or read other writing tips on my website: https://www.fawkesediting.com/

Bio
Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It’d be easier if her fictional one wasn’t so interesting. She has worked in the fiction-writing industry for over eight years and has been editing stories for longer. She has edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors and has worked on manuscripts written for middle grade, young adult, and adult readers, and she once worked for Dave for several years. She runs an award-winning writing tip blog at https://www.septembercfawkes.com/

Find her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008321732625
Twitter: https://twitter.com/SeptCFawkes
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and Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/septcfawkes/

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The Book Break

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Workshops

Two of my online workshops Writing Enchanting Prose and the Advanced Story Puzzle will be starting again March 28th!

The Advanced Story Puzzle: How to Brainstorm and Outline a Bestseller

The Advanced Story Puzzle covers the steps involved in prewriting and outlining your novel.

Learn to identify what pieces you need, what pieces you’re missing, how to find the elements you lack, how to know if a piece to your story puzzle is worthy of being included, and how to know if you’re even working on the right “puzzle”.

There are six lessons on setting, character, conflict, plotting, theme, and treatment. You will also have weekly video conferences where we can discuss your story and answer any questions. Turn in your weekly assignments and I will grade them and give further advice.

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Similar to the Advanced Story Puzzle, there are eight lessons with weekly conference calls and assignments.

You can find more information on both workshops here: http://mystorydoctor.com/online-workshops/

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