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He Said, She Said: Dialogue and Potential Blogfest

 Rome visit, June 2008 - 57

Photo by Ed Yourdon (click pic for link)

This past weekend at the writers' conference, I attended a class on Snappy Dialogue.  I was going to summarize what was talked about, but then realized I had covered this topic all the way back in November.  So, I'm going to post it again since I know many of you are new to the blog and haven't seen it.
However, this also got me to thinking.  There have been tons of blogfests over the past few months and I always have so much fun participating and reading others' entries, so I'm considering doing my own with dialogue as the theme.  Has that been done yet?  If you know, leave me a comment.  
If it hasn't been done, would you be interested in participating in a Sparkling Dialogue Blogfest?  Let me know.  If enough people seem interested, I'll get a rules post and linky thing ready for Monday's post.


UPDATE: Enough of you have shown interest (thanks!), so the blogfest is ON!  I'll put together details and post them Monday.  :)

Alight, now for the nitty gritty...
Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write and read. It's a great workhorse in your manuscript and can handle many tasks for you: advancing plot, building tension, revealing character, establishing motivation, and setting tone among other things. And with all these roles to play, make sure it is filling one on of them. Don't have lackluster chatter just to fill space--like anything else in your story, it must serve a purpose.
Okay, so once you have a purpose for your dialogue what dos and don'ts should you watch out for?
Red Flags
Using too much dialect.
--Regional dialects can add authenticity to your story, but too much becomes tiresome to read.
Being too formal. People don't talk in complete sentences all the time.
--"Are you ready to go to school today?" vs. "Ready for school?"
Trying to recreate dialogue too realistically.
--Yes we pause a lot and say um and uh in real life, but you don't need to put that in your writing, unless you are trying to show nervousness or something.
Addressing the person by name all the time.
--Think about how many times you actually say the other person's name when having a conversation--hardly ever. (I used to do this is my writing ALL the time.)
--"I don't know, Bob. Those pants make you look fat." "But Helen, they match my shirt."
Vague pronouns.
--If three women are talking, be careful of saying "she said" and not defining which she it is.
Having characters tell someone something they already know or would never actually discuss just so you can let the reader know.
--"As you know, your boyfriend cheated on you."
--"You're never going to catch me. As soon as I kill you, I'm going to escape to my secret house in Seattle where no one will be able to find me."
Long drawn out speeches. You're not Shakespeare--drop the soliloquies and monologues.
--Telling in dialogue is STILL telling
Going nuts with non-said dialogue tags or adverbs modifying said.
--In many cases, we're told to use a stronger verb instead of the standard one for verbs such as walked, looked, stood, etc. However, this does not apply to "said". Said is considered invisible to the reader. The shouted/muttered/expressed/pontificated stand out to the reader and remind them that they are reading a story instead of experiencing it.
--This goes for tagging that said with adverbs as well--try to avoid it.
All characters sound alike
--Even without speaker attribution, you should be able to tell most of the time who is talking just by how and what they say.
--Your male lead and female lead should not sound identical. Men and women talk differently. Men, typically, use fewer words to get a point across.
Watch your punctuation.
--Avoid the exclamation point except in rare circumstances--it's melodramatic.
--Semi-colons and colons are not for speech.
--Em-dashes can be used to show a break in thought or an interuption.
--Ellipses can be used to indicate a pause or speech that trails off (use sparingly)
Don't bury your dialogue when you can avoid it. I talked about this before, but here is a refresher for those of you who are new to the blog.  
Dialogue should be in one of the following structures:
"Hello," she said, smiling. "What's your name?"
She smiled. "Hello, what's your name?"
"Hello? What's your name?" she asked.
Don't do what I used to do all over the place:
She grinned at the boy. "Hello, what's your name?" she asked.
--see how the dialogue is buried in the narrative? This slows down your pacing and gives the dialogue less impact. Think of dialogue as a book end--it shouldn't be hidden amongst the books (narrative).
Make your dialogue rock:
Read it out loud or have someone read it to you. Does it sound natural?
Contractions are your friends.
When you can avoid attributions (said), do. Either take them out completely or use action beats.
--She hugged her mother. "I love you." (It is assumed that the person doing the action--the beat--in the sentence is the speaker.)
Ground your dialogue in action. Otherwise, you have talking heads.
--This doesn't have to be for every statement uttered, but people move while they are talking, they sip drinks, smile, adjust their skirt, play with their hair, etc.
--Imagine you are writing a screenplay, the actors would need stage direction to tell them what they should be doing during that dialogue.
So what about you? What are your biggest challenges with dialogue? And would you be down for a dialogue blogfest?
**Today's Theme Song**
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Reader Comments (36)

This is a great post. Lots of great stuff here. I'm retweeting!:)

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Walkup

One, I'm not really sure what a blogfest it, but I'd be willing to find out.

Two, my biggest problem with dialogue is...hmmm...well...I'm not crazy about writing it. I'd rather "tell" instead of have two people have a conversation. Bad, Justine. I know.


April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJustineDell

Dialogue is my very favorite thing to write. As you probably can tell by following my twitter, I have a HUGE fascination with dialogue. Lol I’m obsessed with great quotes, I love a good quip and banter.

I must admit to committing a few of those you pointed out. I used to LOVE writing monologues for my characters. It’s something I’ve had to train myself NOT to do. (I can't help myself, I really love doing them.) And, after reading this, I realize I do that whole ‘burying your dialogue” deal a lot too.

But...really, are soliloquies all that bad? lol How about I limit them to one a story. :o)

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNotSoBadLit

I think I'm cursed as an English teacher. It's so hard for me to write incomplete sentences! :)

I'd love to have a dialogue blogfest. Great idea!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Jo Lavin

Dialog is my strong suit, description my weakness.

I catch my three year old playing with her dolls and toys using dialog tags. "Oh no Little Mermaid! Don't visit the Sea Witch, Flounder said." I hope she's a budding writer too, just like her mommy. :)

A dialog blogfest sounds fun.

I soooo needed this! I've been working at spicing up my dialogue. Thanks, Roni. You always seem to know just what we need. :-)

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShannon O'Donnell

Roni, thanks so much for posting this. It's a lot of great advice. I often struggle between authenticity and what is going to work for the reader.

For example I have a character in my current WIP who is a Jamaican Rastfarian. I'm pretty familiar with the patios/rasta dialect in real life so I am able to write it accurately.

The problem, as Roni pointed out, is that accurate to real life is not always best in writing.

Someone who knows and can read the accent well may find it really engrossing, but the majority of readers will get confused and be drawn out of their suspension of disbelief, which is obviously bad.

I'm working hard on trying to find a balance.

Again, thanks for sharing this Roni, you always have such great advice." rel="nofollow">Today's guest blogger is Rachel Alpine!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Rush

Awesome post & concept for a blogfest.
I'm maintaining a list of blogfests here:
so look at the dates when you schedule yours.
I'm sort of "meh" about dialog tags. There are a few I just can't stop using, like cried, hissed, whispered, shouted, asked, responded. So sue me. :)
I try to eliminate them entirely, but like adverbs, they enjoy creeping back into my work.
Good luck with the blogfest, I'd be up for it!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIapetus999

That is a rockin' list of dialogue tips. Sometimes I know but don't notice when I do the don'ts.
I'd go for that blogfest. It would make me check my scene against your list and tighten. Always a good thing.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTricia J. O'Brien

Yes, dialogue blogfest! Bring it on, Roni!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlaurel

Great, great, great post, and timely too. I'm really taking a strong look at the mechanics of dialogue as it's so very important to get right. Up to 40% of most books are dialogue...that's a lot to screw up.

If you're interested (you asked for things to watch out for and whatnot) I have a guest post coming up on something rarely covered in regards to dialogue--tagless dialogue. It will be up at Tabitha's Writers Musings on MONDAY. Here's the link to the site:

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Roni--Great post, as always.

On the blogfest, I'm in and I'll help you get the word out too, if you decide to do it.

Now, must go find thinking cap so I can decide what I'll write/post.

Have a great weekend!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJon Paul

I vote YES for a dialogue blogfest.

Excellent post!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShelley Sly

Great advice on dialogue. I'd participate in a blogfest. Sounds like fun!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngie

This was a great post, Roni. Thanks for the info. I struggle with using dialogue as an info dump. Yeah, everybody needs to know the information, but the characters already know it. Why do they have to say it for every one else?

Blog fest sounds fun!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKayeleen Hamblin

This is a great post! Can't wait for the blogfest!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmalia T.

Dialogue is one of the things I think I've grown in as a writer...and I would LOVE a blogfest.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSummer

This is a wealth of information! I'm guilty of some of these things, and I need to be more aware. Can't wait for the blogfest!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElana Johnson

Dialogue tags are my enemy. I know I include way too many whispereds, muttereds, hisseds and their cohorts in my work. I try to cut them, but at the same time I want the reader to know the character is whispering, so I get confused about what to do.

And don't get me started on adverbs. They're like french fries - I love them even though I know they're bad for me.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJamie Wesley

Sounds like fun. And good advice. I've done workshops on dialogue (as a matter of fact, I'm putting together a proposal for another one now). Dialogue can make or break a submission.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Odell

Another fab post, Roni!

Question: When the dialogue line is a question is it best to use "she asked" or "she said"?


Tons of info, great post. I think my biggest dialog problem is the -ly words (she said happily).

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiz H. Allen

Excellent and succinct recap, thanks for this! I am going to post a link on our blog.



My biggest challenge with dialogue is making it interesting while still containing information. But this post is so helpful! I love dialogue in books, especially if its funny.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOddyoddyo13

Great post. I was interested in the attribution, 'said,' which I always try to avoid, thinking it is so uninteresting. I guess that's why it's invisible. Now I'll have to go over my WIP and look at this...

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterL'Aussie

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