Writing Dialogue: Errors to Steer Clear of

Writing Dialogue: Errors to Steer Clear of

(and Some Principles to Bear in Mind)

By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes

Let’s begin by remembering—

Effective dialogue in fiction is a created artifact; it is not a mere transcription of “things actually said.” 

Our “go-to” mantra, this is worth emphasizing as we take a look, now, at things that are best avoided when you’re writing dialogue, as well as, in turn, at a number of best practices and their underlying principles. Let’s start with the negatives, things to avoid:

Rule One: Have your characters, wherever suitable, talking with each other, and not at each other

The exception might occur where you intend for a character to be “monologuing” or else be a blow-hard who constantly, as we say, talks “over” other people—then it’s apt to be creating a largely one-sided conversation. (In a subsequent craft note, we’ll consider the art of extended story-telling.)

Normal talk among people is a balletic give-and-take—and, as often as not, a fairly fast-paced affair. The participants take turns yielding the “floor” to other people, expecting that their turn will come soon enough. Not that others won’t interrupt! Frequent interruptions typify conversation, and give it its lively interactive flavor—

“ … So I said to him, ‘Listen, buddy, if you’re going to give me that kind of crap—'”
“Whoah! Oh my! You actually said that. To him?”
“Well, so what if he’s CEO? By this point I knew it was a total non-starter, you know, me working here, so—”
“Still… Like, wow! I wouldn’t have thought!”

—and so on. The first speaker still has the floor in this exchange, the intrusions notwithstanding, and so what we’re hearing is real dialogue. Whoever is interrupting is genuinely involved, is showing real interest—the word, in Latin, INTER-EST—meaning “what is between people.”

What you don’t want in dialogue is to have your characters making “statements” to each other, “speechifying,” as we say—that’s talking at instead of talking with. When it’s said of a character that “s/he spoke in full sentences” or “s/he spoke in full paragraphs,” it’s usually not a compliment!

Rule Two: No “disembodied” dialogue

You need to sustain—to keep “alive”—the sense of your characters’ physical presence, even though (and when) they might be engaging in a long verbal exchange where little narration invokes their physicality—gestures, bodily movements, setting, whatever. Keep your characters continuously within your reader’s field of vision (unless, of course, it’s a phone conversation or on-line talk without visuals). This can be accomplished with just the slightest “tincture” of physical input:

“So—you don’t want to.”
“You’re sure. You’re absolutely sure.”
“You’ve thought about it, then.”
Sam looked away, gazing off toward the far wall. He brought eyes back to hers. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. I have.”
“Well, then. I guess it’s settled.”

You don’t want your characters to become “disembodied”—mere, abstract “voices” resounding in a vacuum.

Rule Three: “Who’s saying this?” No unattributed speech

“Attribution”—clarifying for your reader who’s saying what—is key to maintaining good order in your dialogue. It orients the reader as the dialogue proceeds, sustaining its pace (the matter of “flow” again), and relieving the reader of unnecessary guesswork. You don’t want your reader to have to go window-shopping in search of a speaker to “assign” your dialogue to! Confusions and momentary distractions of that sort break the spell of the dialogue, such confusion being an earmark of the inexpert writer.

We’re speaking here, of course, of “she said” and “he said”—the most common attributions—and their host of variants. (More on them shortly.) Attributions are needed where uncertainty might occur as to who’s doing the speaking. When it’s evident who’s talking, you can readily do without them. Often enough, in a brisk exchange between two people (as in Sam’s conversation with his “other,” in Rule Two), once the talk gets rolling, it takes nothing more than a paragraph change—the customary tool for differentiating speakers—to make clear to the reader who’s saying what.

There’s the inverse danger of over-attributing, although repeated indications as to who’s doing the talking can, in fact, be used for dramatic effect:

I said to her, “No.”
“Well, then,” she said. “Go on! Have it your way.”
“But it’s your way,” I said.
“No,” she said. “It’s yours.”

and so-on. In this quick fragment, the repeated attributions serve to heighten the contentiousness of the exchange the two are having. And, speaking of “inverse dangers,” let’s pause to add that you needn’t labor overmuch to vary the attributions you use in your dialogue. Beginning writers in particular are prone to suppose that “she said” and “he said” become too humdrum, are used too frequently, and need to be switched out for such alternatives as “she replied,” “he explained,” “he responded,” “she murmured,” “she protested,” and so on… all of which, yes, when used judiciously, are useful.

Go on ahead and use “she said” and “he said” with little fear of over-use! They soon enough become mere transparencies for the reader, barely noted in passing as the reading proceeds. In a similar vein, avoid, wherever you can, adjective and adverb blight, as I like to call it—the pointless use of modifiers in writing dialogue where the gist is clear without them. “She shouted loudly”—no! When is “shouting” not loud?! “He castigated her severely.” When is castigation not severe? Such needless qualifiers are effectively redundant. They slow the pacing down and deprive the reader of opportunities for inference—again, the “reader’s share.”

Don’t misunderstand: adjectives and adverbs, properly used, can be key to creating the exact desired effect. But they’re often like lichens covering boulders in the woods—tough ingrained old habits that need to be scrubbed away.

Rule Four: Don’t “over-name” characters who are busy conversing

This error is typical of writers starting out. While, it’s true, people do address each other by name while they’re busy conversing, and might do so for one reason or another—emphasis, accusation, congratulation, and so on—they do it less often than you might think. People know one another’s names, and have no need to repeat them:

“Well, Bob, I guess if that’s the way you see it…”
“I do, Virginia, having given it some thought.”
“Then go ahead, Bob. Do as you think fit.”

You see how quickly the inclusion of names here makes the exchange sound stagey, artificial, clumsy. Best to avoid.

Rule Five: No TV speech

… And speaking of artificial! Way too much “sitcom” dialogue is appearing in the work of young writers—dialogue aimed at being “cute,” being upbeat, often playing for laughs—what I call the “yuk-yuk” or the “har-di-har” effect, terms by no means intended as a compliment.

Dialogue in fiction isn’t playing to a crowd. There’s no “laugh machine” (or whatever they call it) chiming in, line after line, to suggest that it was hilarious. Humor that’s forced (what “har-di-har” produces) is painful and irritating to the adult reader, sophomoric and excessive. Authentic humor is artful and difficult—and welcome when achieved. It’s rarely the product of a direct, deliberate effort on the part of the writer to be, as we say, funny.

Rule Six: There’s no need to replicate “stammered speech” faithfully

Awkward pauses, “stammering,” groping for words… all such moments where the flow of speech grows halting is best conveyed and not “replicated.” Hence, it’s wise to avoid lines like,

“Ah, um, er, well, uhh…”

which isn’t to say that no room exists for clumsy forms of speech when they serve a functional purpose:

“I mean, like, you know—well, look! So, I said to him…”

For fractured speech that’s under the writer’s full control, have a look at Marlow’s tormented musings in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Let’s note, as well, that to convey halting speech—or, perhaps better stated, the presence of halting speech—it’s advisable at times to use what I’ll call narrative indicators. This also applies to lapses of the sort that “groping for words” produces:

Stymied, Joe fell silent. Then he went on. “No,” he said, “I didn’t.”

Such narrative indicators can also “represent” experiences in speech, and in sound more broadly, that are essentially irreproducible on the printed page. In The Sun Also Rises, where his characters are listening to a drummer doing a riff, Hemingway throws the whole experience on the reader, and represents the riff in this economical way:


Ellipses enclosed in quotations marks. What breathtaking economy! That’s authorial confidence at work!

Rule Seven: Go easy on both profanity and dialect—unless there’s good reason for going in with the “heavy hand”

Having one’s characters cussing up a storm—swearing, talking garbage—is very fashionable these days, and appears in some writers (poets as well as those in other genres too) to indicate that the writer feels “liberated” somehow—although from what, it’s rather hard to deduce.

The very worst of our swear-words—the “shitfucks,” as I call them (you see what I mean?!)—are very LOUD in the reader’s ear, and remain, for all their use in our everyday lives, strident-sounding in our literature. Deprived of essential dignity (yes, yes, we grant, there are exceptions! profanity can be used to good effect!), they forfeit “suggestion” in favor of bulldozing. As I used to tell my students—this applies, often as not, to dialect as well, and not merely to swearing—“One drop of iodine turns the whole bucket purple.” Was that actually the case? I wasn’t entirely sure (four drops? was it five?), but it got the point across.

It’s remarkable how effectively a toned-down version of our swear-words will “token in” the same desired effect—e.g., “Rats!” for “Crap!” and “Crap!” for “Shit!” and things like “Oh hell!” for “Fuck!” or “Goddammit!” Euphemizing? Sure! But the point gets across. Shakespeare, we recall, was forbidden the use of profanity on his stage, but managed, even so, to find all sorts of ways to express vulgar thoughts, some of them hilarious—“What, my tongue in your tail?” (The Taming of the Shrew)

Dialect constitutes a more complex matter. Writers who use it sparingly appreciate what a potent “drop of iodine” it is! Just the occasional word “pitched” to a dialectal tone in otherwise standard language can infect a whole passage in the reader’s receptive ear to sound—reverberate—in the dialect in question. Carsen McCullers accomplishes this to wonderful effect with her teen girl, Mick Kelly, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Mick’s Southern twang will “sound” only occasionally in her thinking and speaking—but the effect leaves us hearing her as McCullers intends.

At the other extreme stand the writers who go all-in—or go deep-in—in their immersion in dialect, either presenting the entire work in dialogue, as Peter Matthiessen does in Far Tortuga, a thrilling but verbally very demanding work; or Richard Wright, who casts his characters’ speech in dialect while keeping his narration in more “standard” English; or Toni Morrison in Sula, who weaves in that text a veritable tapestry of styles, the dialectal elements varied, by turn, in her dialogue, her characters’ thoughts, her narrative—while she reserves to herself an “authorial” voice very much in the verbal mainstream… the whole of it astonishingly lyrical in effect!

Dialect warrants more space and care than we can grant it here. In an earlier craft note (“The ‘Journey’ of Reading and the Function of Suspense”), I talked about the occasional level of difficulty in the narrative itself that forces the reader to “contend” with unusual effort, and that observation certainly applies to works in dialect, or works in which dialect is featured very heavily. Here is why:

Dialect in fiction requires the reader to self-educate as part of the “compact” the reader agrees to with the writer. 

… and, as is also the case with the rules of irony, still deserving of more attention, we’re never given a guidebook or a how-to manual for undertaking the needed “self-educating.” This means that our “getting into” (as we say) a work in dialect requires initial patience and, at times, considerable stress—bewilderment, indeed, to be endured in such works as Far Tortuga until we manage to crack the code and find ourselves able to enter the linguistic “circle.”  More, as I say, needs to be said on this subject.


In the next craft note, we’ll look at various ways in which dialogue can be made highly effective in writing fiction.

Read Richard Wertime’s short fiction, “Soccer,” in WTP, and find his other reflections on craft here

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