Talking back: 4 dialogue don'ts
To write a realistic story and keep it moving, avoid these easy-to-fix mistakes
January 4, 2012
After spending some time in previous columns talking about how to keep dialogue real and make dialogue interesting, I’d like to provide some final dialogue don’ts (and in the next, final column about dialogue, a few do’s):
1. Dialogue as pure exposition. That is, using dialogue just to get some essential explanation or information across. Here’s a glaring example:
“Did I tell you that Tommy had a car wreck?”
“Well, it was at 2:30 Thursday afternoon, and he was crossing the intersection at Delancey and Mullins. He was in his blue Cobra with the custom detailing.”
“The light had already turned red, but he …”
That sounds hokey, and most readers know when they’re being force-fed details. Instead, have some of this come out in a police report or a news item. If you must present it through dialogue, at least be more elliptical and suggestive:
“I’m not surprised. He drives at like 80 miles an hour. So where’d it happen?”
And go from there. But don’t draw it out too long, or by that time, Tommy will already be out of the hospital.
2. Exclamation points! Reading dialogue that’s all shouted is like trying to use a relief map that’s all relief. You can still see this effect in some old comic strips, where the illustrator seems to assume his readership is hard of hearing. Ending your dialogue with “!!!” is even worse. All that shows is a writer unsure of getting through to the reader. The same is true of combinations like “?!” when the words alone should convey the tone—in this instance, probably angry and puzzled.
To rely on excessive punctuation is part of the larger-than-life pitfall, where all the characters speak forcefully. In fact, you should cut adverbs like “forcefully” (“ ‘You don’t want to do that,’ he said forcefully”—or flatly or emphatically). Unless you’re playing a guessing game with the reader, the tone should be apparent from the words themselves or the context.
3. Improbable vocabulary. By the same token, avoid words such as “plethora” or “dearth.” I chose these two because I’ve never heard them outside a prepared speech. To prove my point, here’s an instance, clumsily inserted into a domestic exchange:
“Honey, there’s a dearth of salami in the fridge.”
“Check the second shelf, behind the cheddar. We have a plethora.”
4. Excessive use of tags. Cut tags wherever possible. I'm not talking about price listings but verbs for dialogue, such as “she said.” Don’t bother with substitutes for “said” like “expostulated” and “exclaimed.” Why? They’re usually unnecessary.
“Your son used to cut our lawn,” he said.
“Jerry or Mike?” she asked.
“I think it was Mike,” he said.
“You know, Mike died last year in a boating accident,” she said.
Enough, already. Yes, plenty of great authors pepper their dialogue with such tags, Hemingway notoriously, but so what? If you’ve got “I can’t stand you anymore, Bob,” do you really need to add “said Darlene”? It’s usually apparent who’s speaking, and if it’s not, then just add a short action sentence before or after: “Darlene squinted at Bob. ‘I really can’t stand you anymore.’ ”
I’m having fun imagining what Bob retorts, but I’d better stop here.
David Galef, the director of the
creative-writing program at Montclair State University, is a shameless
eclectic, with more than a dozen books out. His latest short-story
collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman
, is available now.