Dialogue Pitfalls

by Brandi Reissenweber

Speaking is a natural part of life. Most of us do it every day, without too much thought. We think on our feet and respond in the moment. This practice is so second nature that it can often be hard to slow down and figure out what we really sound like when we speak. Writers make three common mistakes in this transition from verbal to written dialogue. You can isolate these and avoid them in your own writing.

One: Ambitious, Colorful Tags

Very rarely do you have to tell your listener how you're saying something. You don't say: 

                 “I have to go to the store. I'm saying that urgently.”

So, why do we feel compelled in fiction to describe how dialogue is being said? Like so:

                 “I have to go to the store,” he said urgently.

Or like so: 

                 “I have to go to the store,” he said, bursting with urgency.
Solving this problem in dialogue goes back to the well-worn adage: Show, don't tell.

When you're describing how the dialogue comes across you're telling the reader this information. Your job is to let the burden rest on showing. You can do that in a variety of ways. One is the actual dialogue itself.

A character who says: “I have to go to the store” isn't expressing the urgency of a character who says it this way:

                “They're already due and the tomato sauce is burnt. Give me the keys.”

Notice how this gets the urgency across and also says a little something about the nature of the urgency. Guests are going to arrive any minute, and dinner is going awry.

Another option is to use gesture or action to reveal the tone of the dialogue. Take this line of dialogue, where two different actions help shed a different meaning on the words:

                "I'm tired of this." She shoved her chair from the table.

                "I'm tired of this." She closed her eyes and put her hands to her face.

Notice the difference? The power of a revealing action!

Two: Creating Dialogue That is a Transcription of Real Speech

In real life, we have the benefit of the understanding that we're all thinking on our feet. Our listener is getting body language and facial expression and verbal communication simultaneously and that's a lot to sort out and process. This is not the case in fiction. The reader is just getting one thing at a time and too much realism can cause the reader to loose patience. You can capture hesitations and false starts with much less ums and ahs and wells than come out in real life.

Here's a passage that might be heard in real life:

“Um, hey, have you seen the new guy in the, uh, that class we take. What's his name? Wait. I thought that he was someone else when I first saw him. Brown hair, dopey look. Know who I'm talking about?” Lou said.

“Yeah. What, you mean the one who sat in the front? That guy?” Al said. “You mean Wallace?”

“Yeah, well, who else? Right. Wallace.” Lou said.

Pretty painful, right? But what if your characters are this hesitant and unsure? Dialogue can capture this if it simply seems spontaneous:                  

                  “Have you seen that new guy—brown hair, dopey look?” Lou said. “Sits in the front row.”

                   “Uh, yeah,” Al said. “You mean Wallace?”

Three: Expository Dialogue

Just because words are in quotations doesn't mean that you're “showing” rather than “telling.” Some writers try to use dialogue as way to convey lots of information to the reader and, as a result, the dialogue is crammed full of exposition. This kind of dialogue exists for the reader only, not also for the purposes of the exchange in the story as it includes information that wouldn't normally be verbalized. For example, a husband says to his wife:
“I can't go to the shop after dark anymore. My brother Doug died driving that same stretch of road because it was dark out.” 
This doesn't pay attention to what the listener all ready knows. The wife certainly knows about the brother's death and the circumstances under which he died. She's probably also rather familiar with the fact that going to the shop after dark has been difficult for her husband since that time. Here's a revision of how that dialogue might sound in the course of natural conversation:

                    “I can't, not since Doug's accident.”

So how do you get the rest of that information to the reader? You can do it through narrative. Here's an example of how it might be done:

After dinner, his wife cleared the plates. He listened to the fork on the plates, scraping food into the garbage. She wanted those papers. If only she'd mentioned it an hour earlier, when the sun was mellowing. Not entirely gone. He could see right where they were: piled atop a speaker next to the door, so he'd remember. He walked to the kitchen entryway. “I can't,” he said.

“Doug's accident, I know.”

It's smoother and pays attention not only to the reader's need for information, but also the demands of the exchange and the nature of the relationship between these two characters.