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Monday, August 14, 2017

5 Most Common Mistakes with Dialogue




As an editor, I've been thinking about how I need to do a post on some of the most common mistakes I see in dialogue. Many are a matter of fine-tuning, moving from a great writer, to a professional one.


Dialogue Tags Don't Match the Dialogue


As I've mentioned before, I'm not wholly against alternative dialogue tags ("groaned," "cried," "yelled," "lamented," etc.), and I think they can be particularly effective when the dialogue 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 dialogue tag honestly doesn't fit the way it's said. It's hard to give an example of this in a blog post, because often whether or not the tag fits the dialogue depends on the context of the story. But look at this:

"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. But that is the chosen dialogue tag. It doesn't fit.

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


But sometimes you get 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.

Here are some more examples:

"I need to lose weight," Taz wondered.

"Can I check into my hotel room now?" Kelly raged.

"Want to pick up the groceries?" Katie exclaimed.


Sure, grammatically, they are fine, but other than very rare occasions, the tags aren't appropriate for the direct dialogue. Make sure what you write matches.


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 similar 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. So this is a problem. But you can easily fix it:

"Grab the gun!" I yelled, then held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

OR

"Grab the gun!" I yelled. I held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

OR

 "Grab the gun!" I yelled, and I held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.


But NEVER

"Grab the gun!" I yelled, holding 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 the same time she said "Yes."  Unless she's Quicksilver from X-Men, it's not possible to do all those things during a one-syllable word.

You can fix it like this:

 "Yes," she said, putting her dress in the suitcase. She added her socks and pajamas, and then placed the luggage on the floor.


Some writers say you should try to leave out participial phrases like this 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.

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. For example, all of these sentences are punctuated properly:

"All I was wondering," Jill said, "was if you would like to go to the movies."

"I caught a fish once," Heber said. "It was a big fat trout."

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. "You wrecked my car?"

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked. "I do love squirrels."



Here are the same sentences handled improperly:

"All I was wondering," Jill said. "Was if you would like to go to the movies."

"I caught a fish once," Heber said, "it was a big fat trout."

"I can't believe this," Arnie said! "You wrecked my car?"

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "you wrecked my car?"

"I do love squirrels," Daisy asked, "was it a squirrel?"

For a complete rundown of how to punctuate dialogue, you can follow this link. But here are a few things to keep in mind.

"All I was wondering," [part of a sentence] Jill said, [dialogue tag] "was if you would like to go to the movies. [rest of the sentence]"

- When the dialogue tag interrupts a sentences, separate it by commas.

"I caught a fish once, [complete sentence]" Heber said. [dialogue tag] "It was a big fat trout." [a separate complete sentence]

- When the dialogue tag comes at the end of a complete sentence, use a comma inside the end quotes and then a period after the tag. If there is more dialogue, capitalize the next letter as you would the start of a sentence.

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. "You wrecked my car?"

- When the dialogue tag follows an exclamation point or question mark, you simply add the dialogue tag with a period. You don't need an extra comma ("I can't believe this!," Arnie said--no)

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

- In this example, the dialogue tag is technically preceding the dialogue "You wrecked my car?" so you can put a comma.

Notice how these actually read differently:


"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. / "You wrecked my car?"

vs.

"I can't believe this!" / Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

The slash denotes that extra bit of silence. The way the dialogue tag is placed and punctuated tells us how the beat goes.

Now, some people say you should never start with a dialogue tag: Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?" I'd argue that it's the best choice in some scenarios. Also, some say you should never flip the speaker and tag: "You wrecked my car?" said Arnie.

I personally don't have a problem with it as long as it's used sparingly and not the go-to choice. When you are describing who is speaking, because we don't know the name, it's often a great choice: "You wrecked my car?" said a man with a long beard and a silver umbrella.


"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked. "I do love squirrels."

- Same explanation as my exclamation point one. If you end on a question, put the question mark before the end quotes, add the dialogue tag, and put a period. Notice how this example is wrong:

"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked, "I do love squirrels."

-->

"Was it a squirrel?" / Daisy asked, "I do love squirrels."

Daisy is not asking "I do love squirrels." So again, the tag does not match the dialogue.


Making Actions into Dialogue Tags

I could have probably put this in the last section, but it happens so much that it really needs its own category.

Sometimes writers make the dialogue tag a physical action:

"Let's go to the store," Amy smiled.

"I do love pudding," Luna scooped some pudding on her plate, "When is the next match?"

"The last thing I need," Mom yanked the car into reverse, "is for you to back talk me!"

Dialogue is something audible. You can't smile audible language. You can smile while you say it, but you can't smile it.

"Let's go to the store," Amy said, smiling.

OR

"Let's go to the store." Amy smiled.

In the second example, it is implied that Amy is the speaker, simply because of the structure of the line/paragraph. You can absolutely imply who is speaking. But notice that "Amy smiled" is not punctuated as a dialogue tag.

Here is how to fix the pudding one:

"I do love pudding." Luna scooped some pudding on her plate. "When is the next match?"

Keep the action separate from the dialogue--its own sentence.

The third wrong example is tricky. But is here is how you handle it:

"The last thing I need"--Mom yanked her car into reverse--"is for you to back talk me!"

Now, in some cases, I'm guilty of just doing the commas to set off the action, because I feel it suits the tone more than the dashes. If dashes don't suit the moment, you can also play around with the dialogue and find (correct) alternatives. Now, is it wrong if I stylistically choose to use commas? I'll leave that to my editor. ;)

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. 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.

" 'Arry, I dunno how t' tell ya this," Hagrid said, then paused. "Yer mum and dad didn' die in a car crash. It was a dark wizard who done it. You-Know-Who--one o' the darkest wizards in history."

(Yeah, I know, I can't get Hagrid's dialogue quite right without the book in front of me.)

But in this example, we have someone who knows telling someone who doesn't.

Sometimes though, you just can't work that into your story. In that case, the info itself should not be the sum of the dialogue, but often the subtext.

Here is a great example that would have worked fine (although, it of course works better in where it is actually placed)

(Major spoiler alert--since I know some of my followers haven't read or seen all of Harry Potter yet and they want to)

"You said you would keep her safe," Snape said.
"Lily and James put their faith in the wrong person, Severus, rather like you," Dumbledore said. "The boy survives."
"He doesn't need protection. The dark lord is gone!"
"The dark lord will return. And when he does, the boy will be in terrible danger," Dumbledore said. "He has her eyes."

And then as the scene goes on, you could subtly fill in more info the reader needs.


Straightforward Dialogue

Often the most powerful dialogue is indirect. In the spoilery example above, one of the many reasons it was so powerful was because of all that it implies--it's indirect. It has subtext. Notice how a very straightforward version takes out some of the power:

(Still spoilery )


"You said you would keep her safe," Snape said.
"I did my best to keep them safe. Voldemort killed Lily and James when they trusted Peter Pettigrew as their Secret Keeper. Their son survived Voldemort's attack. He will need protection."
"He doesn't need protection. The dark lord is gone!"
"The dark lord will return. And when he does, he'll want to kill the boy," Dumbledore said. "I know how much you loved Lily, so you must do all you can to keep the boy safe."

Sure, the dialogue is okay, but it's lost some of its power.

Other times, the straightforward is not so lucky:

"Jennifer, I love you! I love you so much! 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.


For more on dialogue, check out my other tips:


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