Thursday, September 10, 2015

Dialogue Pitfalls and How to Fix Them

Happy Thursday, everyone! Oh my, tomorrow is FRIDAYYYY! Who's excited? I can't believe it was just a four day workweek. I'm exhausted already. Ha! Today, I'm taking you all through an exercise to help with your dialogue. I'll start by outlining a few pitfalls, then explain how to correct in your first edit. Ready? Grab those pens and notebooks and let's get going!


We'll start with labels to keep it easy.
#1: Group Conversations
A common issue in creating group dialogue is when the author wants everyone to speak at once. Now, this can work if done properly, but line after line of Bob said, Marley said, Jane said, and Duke said gets tiresome.

Here's a tip:
Seek out scenes where folks are talking and examine them. If you have to, put people in a room and assign them all part of your dialogue. Have them read their lines (in character). Make notes of their facial expressions, movements, and tone. Work it in.

Example #1:
"I didn't think I had anything to be worried about," Bob said.
"Seriously? What didn't you see there?" Marley said.
"Right? I could've picked up on the subtle clues if I were blind," Jane said.
"Bob, your wife hasn't touched you in months. Wasn't that clue number one?" Duke said.
"But it's always been like that," Bob said. "Ever since we were first married."
"Really?" Jane said.
"Yes, really," Bob said.
"Well, why did you stay married ten years then?" Marley said.
Fix #1:
Mouth turned down, hand clutching a tumbler of bourbon on the rocks, Bob shrugged. "I didn't think I had anything to be worried about." Added action tag.
"Seriously? What didn't you see there?" Marley asked. Changed said to asked.
Jane snorted and curled her lip. "Right? I could've picked up on the subtle clues if I were blind." Another action tag.
"Your wife hasn't touched you in months. Wasn't that clue number one?" Duke asked. Changed said to asked.
Bob sighed and leaned back in the chair, studying his friends. They were all coiled and tensed up, like a snake ready to strike. There was no way they'd understand, but he figured he'd try. "But it's always been like that. Ever since we were first married." Applied exposition and action.
"Really?" Jane's head snapped up. Changed to action tag.
"Yes, really." We know it's Bob. Deleted dialogue tag.
Marley asked. "Well, why did you stay married ten years then?" Moved dialogue tag to front.
If you add a little action and thought in with the dialogue, you show the reader more about the situation, and you avoid overusing said.

#2 Invisible Dialogue Tags
It's a common misconception to believe you have to change up the dialogue tags every time. While "said" gets tiring to read, you've seen one way to avoid having to use it on every line. But what about invisible dialogue tags? How many are there? Why should you use them?

Here's a tip:
Seek out those scenes where you're using something other than said to denote dialogue. Ask yourself why. Is it an action tag? That's a good thing unless it's pulling the reader out of the story. There are a handful of invisible tags you can use; just make sure they're relevant to the tone/situation.

Invisible dialogue tags are words readers don't have to process as they move through the story. They exist to avoid confusion only. They speed up the flow of your story (pacing).

Example #2:
  • Asked
  • Said
  • Answered
  • Responded
  • Whispered
  • Shouted
  • Yelled
  • Screamed
A common error is to use an action tag as if it were a dialogue tag. More on these here. Unless the word is denoting speech of some kind, it's an action tag. List:
  • Ordered
  • Commanded
  • Howled
  • Growled
  • Slurred
  • Hissed
  • And so on.
Use invisible tags whenever possible, but you don't need one every line. Hang on, that's next!

#3: Mixing Action Tags and Dialogue Tags
If you have a person doing something, you don't need a dialogue tag to tell the reader who it is that's speaking.

Here's a tip:
Find those places where you have action and dialogue together, and remove the dialogue tags.

Example #3:
Bob shrugged and panned his eyes over the faded wallpaper. He said, "I never thought Martha was the kind to do something like that."
"She's hitting the prime of her life, Bob. She's also a good looking woman," Jane said.
He slammed the glass on the coffee table, sloshing bourbon over the antique wood. "I know she's good looking. Hell, I'm the one who married her!" He yelled.
"All women go through a phase," Jane said as she shrunk back in the couch.
"Phase! Phase?" Bob screamed. "This is so much more than a phase!"
Jane nodded and said, "I understand."
Fix #3:
Bob shrugged and panned his eyes over the faded wallpaper.  "I never thought Martha was the kind to do something like that." Removed He said.
"She's hitting the prime of her life, Bob. She's also a good looking woman," Jane said. Left alone.
He slammed the glass on the coffee table, sloshing bourbon over the antique wood. "I know she's good looking. Hell, I'm the one who married her!" Removed He yelled.
"All women go through a phase." Jane shrunk back in the couch. Removed said as she.
"Phase! Phase? This is so much more than a phase!" Removed Bob screamed.
Jane nodded. "I understand." Removed and said.
Again, if you know who it is that's speaking, there's no need for a tag. But removing all those tags cleaned up the prose.

#4: Using a Dialogue or Action Tag on Every Line
You don't have to go bananas with action and dialogue tags. When two people are having a conversation, you can delete most of the tags and still be okay.

Here's a tip:
Find places where there are just two folks talking. See how much you can remove without getting confusing.

Example #4:
"My wife has drained my bank accounts, done things behind my back, and she wants to know why I'm upset." Bob dragged his free hand down his face and slurped his drink.
Marley sat forward. "She probably hit her mid-life crisis and didn't want to worry you. You're aware of how she treats her body. It was bound to happen."
Bob snorted. "Yeah, I just didn't think she'd do something this crazy at thirty-one."
"It's that milestone, brother. Hang in there. At least she's not cheating on you," Marley said, putting a hand on Bob's back.
He sighed. "You're right. I guess I should be grateful she wants to look good for me. What's a little face-lift in the grand scheme of things, right?" A choked laugh escaped. "But she lied. Plain and simple. Who knows, she might be cheating, too."
"I doubt that. She loves you." Marley leaned back.
"She loves my money," Bob said.
Fix #4:
"My wife has drained my bank accounts, done things behind my back, and she wants to know why I'm upset." Bob dragged his free hand down his face and slurped his drink. Left alone.
Marley said, "She probably hit her mid-life crisis and didn't want to worry you. You're aware of how she treats her body. It was bound to happen." Changed action tag to dialogue tag.
"Yeah, I just didn't think she'd do something this crazy at thirty-one." Removed all tags.
"It's that milestone, brother. Hang in there. At least she's not cheating on you." Marley put a hand on Bob's back. Removed dialogue tag.
"You're right. I guess I should be grateful she wants to look good for me. What's a little face-lift in the grand scheme of things, right?" A choked laugh escaped. "But she lied. Plain and simple. Who knows, she might be cheating, too." Removed action tag.
"I doubt that. She loves you." Removed action tag.
"She loves my money." Removed dialogue tag.
And, you still know who it is that's speaking! Amazing, right?

These are some of the most common dialogue errors I come across. If you do your homework, you'll come out the other side a better writer. For another trap post, check out this one.

I hope this helps in some small way.

What are the things that annoy you most in dialogue? Discuss!

Well, that's all for today, folks! Until next time, WRITE ON!

Jo

1 comment:

  1. In my early books, I definitely fell into the trap of #2 and #4! I eventually found an awesome editor that pointed it out and I think it's improved my dialogue a lot. The examples you provided are super helpful =)

    ReplyDelete

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