When I’m reading a piece of fiction, one of the first things I notice is how well the dialog is done. I’ve found that a lot of authors — especially in their first couple of drafts — make awful, avoidable mistakes that make me cringe in actual pain.
If you don’t know what’s wrong with the title, then you definitely need to read this.
So, let’s start with that, then.
“YOUR DIALOG SUCKS!” I angrily screamed.
There are three things that I immediately notice about this, and it’s their combination that makes this truly bad. Let’s make some ground rules for dialog.
- Use exclamation points sparingly. Treat them like they’re made of gold, because exclamation points are also often obtrusive and tacky.
- We should all work together to stop Caps Lock abuse, especially in our dialog. When is all caps appropriate? Almost never. It’s cheesy and corny and typically makes you look bad. I would suggest only using it if your character is looking at a flyer for something, and that’s the way the flyer looks.
- Adverb + descriptive verb. Really? Honestly? There’s not a lot of ways a person is going to scream that sentence. Give your reader the benefit of the doubt. They will probably understand what you’re trying to get across, especially through context clues, so you don’t need to use adverbs that often, especially when you already have a very specific verb to go with it. Your reader is smart. Let them interpret.
So there are the basics. It’s not that simple, though. Let’s take a chunk of text from that really awful story I wrote ten years ago, Erikill.
“Come here!” demanded Sheila.
Serena rolled her eyes and walked over to her mother.
“Where were you?” growled Sheila
“Out for a walk” said Serena bitterly.
“Tell me the truth!” said Sheila.
“I did!” yelled Serena.
“I said, ‘Tell me the truth!’” Sheila slammed her fists on the wooden table.
“I told you, I did! Why don’t you believe me about anything?”
“Go to your room and go to sleep! I’ll deal with you in the morning!” screamed Sheila.
Jesus Christ, where do I start?
Caps Lock and exclamation points aren’t the only things that get abused. I’m using adverbs here like it’s going out of style, and the exchange itself is so boring. This is a scene that should be intriguing to the reader, but the characters are acting like they’ve been ripped out of a bad-acting soap opera parody. So let’s try cleaning it up.
“Come here,” Sheila demanded, eyes locked on her daughter.
Freezing in her spot, Serena sighed inwardly before turning around, trying to keep her own temper in check.
“Where were you?” her mother asked.
“Out for a walk.”
Sheila narrowed her eyes, not buying it. She leaned heavily onto the counter, and Serena could tell that what little patience she had was wearing thin.
“Tell me the truth.”
Gritting her teeth, her mother repeated, “Tell me the truth.”
Serena stared at the woman with open contempt. It was the same thing every time she came home. Why she ever came back to this house was a mystery. It’s not like anyone ever listened to what she had to say.
“I did, Mom,” she snapped, completely exasperated by the ordeal. She tried to reign herself in but couldn’t stop herself from snarling, “Christ, why don’t you ever believe me about anything?”
There it was. She could see her mother snapping in the way the woman’s shoulders tensed and the crow’s feet around her eyes crinkled.
“Go to bed. I’m done with you. I’ll deal with you in the morning.”
Not perfect, but a lot better. So what did I do?
- I gave the dialog a break. This is simple. Rather than ending nearly every sentence with “yelled Serena” or “demanded Sheila,” I broke the text up with some description. I didn’t use verbs as a crutch. I described Serena’s thoughts, her mother’s actions, and her mother’s appearance to show you that she’s angry, and put that between the pieces of dialog.
- PHYSICAL REACTIONS. It’s not just an exchange anymore. It’s two characters interacting with body language. You know, like real people.
That’s basically all you need.
Now, let’s say you’ve got some longer text. This is from the same story. Serena’s met some medieval brother-sister duo or something, I don’t even know, but they’re giving the origin story of this evil sorceress to her:
“It started long ago when the world had just begun. A witch named Elderair had been born. As she grew and grew over the years she began to realize that she could manipulate things in unnatural ways. She felt it gave her power and that turned her to Earth. She saw Earth as just a planet, but if it were ruled over by her, she could have whatever she wanted. She could get revenge from those who had mocked her for her powers” said the girl, “She began to cast an evil shadow over the world and as her power grew, the more she liked it. Elderair continued her reign of terror until four people rose against her. They were masters of the light and dark arts. Each of them helped in the defeat of Elderair, but before they could vanquish her, Elderair put a curse on them. It would make it so that once she died her body would be able to come back by feeding off of other souls and that once she reached her hundredth sacrifice she would be able to come back and begin to reign again. Also, the four travelers would substitute her death and become her first victims.”
I COULD NOT BE MORE BORED RIGHT NOW. I ALSO KIND OF FEEL LIKE I’M DROWNING.
Now, let’s just ignore the plot and overall badness of that and talk about why it doesn’t work as dialog.
When someone reads a huge chunk of text, they are mentally reading along with the character’s voice. Those “he said”s and “she said”s that are interspersed throughout the piece offer the reader a chance to mentally breathe. Without those, it feels like a bombardment of information. It also allows you a chance to create a pause for your character in their speech without having to use the actual word. The same tips that I gave above also work here. Sprinkling some physical actions will make it read tons better. Also, putting a paragraph break after the first “said the girl” will stop you from creating a giant, intimidating wall of text that no one wants to read.
That’s all I got. Do you guys have some dialog-specific tips? Got something to say about my tips? Leave a comment and let me know!