As a writer and an editor, I have a pile of pet peeves concentrated around dialogue. It seems so simple, and yet it trips up everyone from beginners to pros. Although the basic format long ago became second nature to me, I still find examples of most of my other pet peeves in my first drafts. Sometimes I find examples of these in my published work, and that really drives me nuts. So, what bugs me about dialogue? Let’s dig in …
“Dialogue format is pretty simple,” said Bob. “But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for beginners.”
Sue nodded. “If you get confused, just grab a novel off your bookshelf to use as a guide.”
“What she said. And start a new paragraph for each speaker.”
The dialogue above demonstrates the two key attributes of the format: indenting for each person and indicating—when necessary!—who’s speaking with phrases outside the dialogue. This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen beginning fiction writers forget to use indentation, creating a solid block of quotes that’s difficult for the reader to untangle into a conversation. In other instances, dialogue is not clearly or correctly attributed, leaving the reader puzzled about who’s saying what. Once this basic format has been applied, we can dig deeper into the rest of my pet peeves, which are more about style and less about nuts-and-bolts structure.
Look, Who’s Talking? Dialogue Tags and Character Actions
There are three basic ways of indicating to the reader which character is delivering a line of dialogue. One is the direct dialogue tag, like the “said Bob” used above. Another is giving the character a bit of stage direction like “Sue nodded.” Both of these clearly indicate to the reader which character is saying the related quote. The third way is more subtle, as demonstrated by the final line of dialogue above. Because there are only two people in this scene, it’s clear that quote is from Bob. These few points are at the heart of a bunch of pet peeves.
Excessive dialogue tags: If there are only two people talking, don’t use a dialogue tag for every line. The reader gets that the characters are speaking alternately. If there’s a pause in the discussion, and then the same character who last spoke starts speaking again, that needs to be explained. Otherwise, just let the conversation flow.
Awkward saidisms: Using “said” is perfectly acceptable. Some direction can be effective, such as “she whispered.” But don’t go out of your way to come up with new expressions to describe a line reading, like “she grated” or “he masticated.” What do those even mean? And be careful about redundancies like “she yelled loudly.”
Punctuating actions like tags (or vice versa): Be careful about the format. These are not correct:
“If you’re getting confused,” Sue nodded, “just grab a novel off your bookshelf.”
Bob said. “What she said.”
Talking is Hard and People are Lazy
It’s easy to throw everything into dialogue, far more than what should be there. This is another source of pet peeves for me.
Wordy dialogue: People often speak in simple or incomplete sentences. A person wouldn’t generally say, “Bill, open that door for me because it’s locked, and I couldn’t find my key in my jacket.” The person stuck out in the cold would simply say, “Hey, open the door, I lost my key.” Or just, “Open up, dammit!”
Dialogue as first drafted can often be condensed for a more natural sound. Your characters’ speech doesn’t need to be grammatical. Of course, if one of your characters is a strict English teacher, maybe he will often speak in full, perfect sentences.
Exposition as dialogue: Explain background information in the narrative, don’t stick it all into your characters’ mouths. One reason this often falls flat is that, in order to give the reader necessary back story, the writer has one character tell another character something they both already know:
“This is serious,” said Doctor Johnson. “Her heart’s in bad shape. She’s in poor physical condition, and her unhealthy diet hasn’t helped. If we don’t operate soon, her chances of survival are slim.”
Doctor Smith frowned. “Well, duh, I’m her cardiologist, why are you telling me this?”
The Name Game: Outside of parents talking to toddlers, people rarely call each other by name. Unless a character is calling for someone in a group, leave out the name. Don’t resort to excessive use of names as a way to indicate who’s speaking. Using a character’s name in dialogue can produce a certain dramatic tone, but the effect is weakened if used repeatedly.
This Discussion is Over
Not because I’ve covered everything, but just the opposite. I could go on forever about little stylistic things, like if you need several dialogue tags in a row, vary the format (“said Bob” vs. “Sue said”) and the placement (before quote, during quote, after quote). Or if a character says, “Dammit, I don’t want to go, and you can’t make me!” you probably don’t have to add “she said angrily” because the content of the dialogue makes her emotions clear on its own. So we’re just stopping here for convenience.
“And,” he said, “because I want to get some chocolate. Mmm … chocolate.”