Dialog Killers

Dialog Killers


Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music.

ASK THE AUTHOR: NaNoWriMo: Beneficial or detrimental for writers? From Ann Swer (Jacqueline Patterson) via e-mail.

AARON: Great question, Ann! First, for those of you who may not know, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month which is observed annually in November. The goal is 50,000 (the minimum for a novel) words all written in the month of November. NaNoWriMo has been around since 1999. So, is it good or bad for writers? I think it depends on a lot of factors. So long as you’re doing that much writing, you’re getting better. I like that, at the end of the month, you should have close to a workable first draft. It really helps you get into the zone. But I also worry that it can be too much pressure, and may burn some people out. It’s no good to write that much and then take the next 11 months off. As long as you’re using it as a reason to prioritize your writing, excellent. But then, I think the best writers are the ones who work hard 12 months out of the year. Full disclosure: I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo. By the time I heard about it, I’d already been writing for a few years and had a good routine in place.

AL: As with anything, there are plusses and minuses with this kind of thing. If you’re trying this with a book you want to publish, then the process might be a good jump start. If not, then you’re spending a great deal of time NOT laboring on your work-in-progress. I imagine those who benefit from the process are thinking more about growing in their craft and there’s no better way to do that than writing, writing, writing.

However, there is a downside. Successful writers are self-motivated and have no need for a nonprofit to lure them into to composing. There have been a few article written slamming the process. Here’s one written in 2010 for Salon. http://www.salon.com/2010/11/02/nanowrimo/. That being said, some people enjoy the challenge.

MOLLY: One of our regular viewers, Tess DeGroot is the chairperson for the local NaNoWriMo connections. I forget her actual title. I participated once, and would most likely not do it again. I agree with both Aaron and Al: It is a lot of pressure but it is also a lot of fun. I think if you don’t have an actual work in progress, but (a) have a basic idea in your head and/or (b) just want to hone your writing skills, then it’s a good endeavor. If you do participate, remember the rules are that you cannot have prewritten material. So you’re starting from scratch. Throw Thanksgiving into the mix, and you’ve basically got about 28 days or less to write 50k words. Don’t expect to have anything more than a rough draft when you’re done. But if you do well under pressure, and you like challenges, I say give it a try at least once. At the least, you can say you tried, and at the most, you’ll have a completed manuscript.

Firsts in Fiction


AARON: Last week we took a look at how to make dialog sound authentic without actually being authentic. Today, we talk about the top killers new writers commit when writing dialog. Next week we’ll look specifically at how to tag our dialog appropriately and efficiently.

  • Let’s define what we mean by a dialogue tag. A dialogue tag (also called an “attribution”–we’ll use these terms interchangeably) is a phrase that tells a reader who’s doing the talking. “I’m going to the beach today,” Tom said. “Tom said,” is an attribution, a tag. Two things to know:
    • Thing 1:These are very useful and when properly used, the reader will never get lost.
    • Thing 2: Tags are often overused (which is fine if you’re getting paid by the word).
  • Killer #1: Over the top dialog tags.
    • In this example, context will tell us that the comment sarcastic. Also, “exclaimed” is too much. Most of the time, all you need is “said” or “asked.” People worry that it may be too redundant, but the reader tends to ignore them, so it doesn’t feel redundant to them unless you’re tagging every line of dialog.
    • MJ: This calls to mind what Aaron is always saying, “Trust the reader.” The reader will interpret the emotion and intensity of the dialogue, Molly argued forcefully.
    • Al: And let’s not forget the famous “Tom Swiftys” from the YA novels Tom Swift (Edward Stratemeyer (who used ghostwriters):
      • “Bingo!” Tom said winningly.
      • “Walk this way,” Tom said stridently.
      • “Please pass me the shellfish,” Tom said crabilly.
    • These become distracting. Remember, what’s inside the quotation marks should be receiving the majority of the attention. Anything that distracts from that is a killer. This has changed a bit over time. Poe used dialogue tags like “he gesticulated wildly.” That may have been okay in his time. Now, it feels a little less refined. (Some of the blame for this problem can be laid at the feet of old publishing models. Often authors were paid by the word, therefore, the more words, the more pizza money they received.)
    • EXAMPLE: “Oh really?” He exclaimed sarcastically.GENERAL RULE: Use as few dialogue tags as possible. Not so few that the reader gets lost or has to work at understanding who’s doing what. All things in moderation.
  • Killer #2: AL: Formulaic attribution. This is the act of combining a dialogue tag with a physical action. Usually it is a tag followed by a present participle or gerund as in:
    • “I’m not asking you; I’m telling you,” the detective said leaning back in his chair.
      “And if I refuse?” Roberta said leaning forward.
    • Some writers fall into this trap and almost every bit of dialogue follows that formula. It gets noticed and it gets old real quick.
  • GENERAL RULE: Avoid formula writing, especially with dialogue.
  • Killer #3: Presenting exposition within dialog. This simply means you’re using dialog to get relevant information to the reader. However, this normally comes out stiff and forced, and does not feel authentic. Specifically, characters should not say things to other characters who already know it.
    • This example comes from LOST, and it falls apart because we already put that together. It’s insulting to see it in dialog. Furthermore, the whole “villain monologue” thing is a little played out.
    • This example fails because the line only exists to get that information to us, and Frank already knows all this.
    • EXAMPLE #1: “Before she died, she said, ‘Tell my sister I love her,’ but she doesn’t have a sister. That was her code that meant someone killed her, and I know it was you, so now I’m going to kill you.”
    • EXAMPLE #2: “Hey, Frank! You know how you’re scared of the dark, right? And also, you’ve always dreamed of becoming a professional ballerina? Well, that’s cool.”
    • GENERAL RULE: Avoid using dialogue to “salt” information about the story.
  • Killer #4: Thinking every bit of dialogue needs a tag. It doesn’t.
    • The goal is to keep the reader on track with who is saying what.
    • This is easy when there are only two people talking.
    • When there’s a group, it can get confusing forcing the reader to stop and ask, “Wait who said that?”
    • The more speakers in a scene, the greater the need for an attribution or a beat. It takes creativity and some attention to not overload the scene with tags.
    • GENERAL RULE: Use as few tags as possible and only if needed.
  • Killer #5: Characters speaking too directly. People are rarely specific when it comes to difficult topics. They tend to talk around them and speak in euphemisms. Embrace the sometimes vague dialog when necessary.
    • This example is bad because it’s an example of killer #2 as well as speaking too directly. Instead, the character would simply ask, “How’s your mom?” And the response would be, “Chemo’s brutal.” That gives the reader all we need to know.
    • EXAMPLE: “Hey, Phil. How’s your mom who’s dying of Stage Four cancer?”
    • GENERAL RULE: Dialogue should reveal the character not be used to reveal the plot.


  • Killer #6: Depending too heavily on tags instead of narration and/or dialogue to paint the action. It is easier to write “he said” than it is to write a more active and descriptive line.
    • GENERAL RULE: Dialogue tags should be used when needed and only when needed.

Killer #7: Using “smile,” “moan,” “fume,” and “chuckle,” as verbs to describe people talking. While we can “moan” words, we rarely do (and when we do, if it’s not for the sake of melodrama, it’s seen as juvenile). Also, we can’t “smile” words. If we did, it would be creepy.

    • EXAMPLE: “It’s so good to see you,” he chuckled.
      This example is awkward. People who speak while they chuckle are weird and creepy. Instead, just put a period at the end of the dialog. “It’s good to see you.” He chuckled. Now the actions of speaking and chuckling are separate. (AL: “Chuckling” then becomes a beat.)
    • GENERAL RULE: Keep attributions simple.
    • EXAMPLE: “Really? Then what happened?”
      • Instead, just have the primary storyteller continue with their story.
      • Or, break the monologue with action. Have the speaker pause, get up and pace, pick lint off his pants, etc. Make the action fit the character’s mental state: nervous, angry, insecure, etc.)
    • GENERAL RULE: Avoid artificial, unrealistic dialogue.
    • EXAMPLE: “Black Widow is my favorite Avenger. She’s so strong and awesome, and I love her. I want to be her,” they simultaneously exclaimed together at the same time!
      • This example is particularly troubling because of all the killers. But the fact that two people would say something like this verbatim at the same time is unthinkable.
    • GENERAL RULE: Avoid trying to convey people speaking unison on the page. It might sound right in your head, but it won’t seem true to the reader. (With rare exception.)
    • Killer #8 Using lines simply to advance another character’s speech. These are offensive because they’re completely unnecessary. Without them, the story is unchanged. They’re useless words. (Some writers call them “weasel words.”)
    • Killer #9 People speaking in unison. While it does happen in real life (otherwise, I’d never hear my sons say “JINX!”), it happens rarely and feels forced in fiction (unless it’s a surprise party). Ask yourself this: why is it important that two people say the same thing at the same time? What does it add to the story? My guess is nothing.
  • Killer #10: Trying too hard to show accents, brogues, socially unique speaking patterns. As we said in our last podcast writers write dialogue for the eye, the reader translates it for the ear. Too much torturing of words so they sound like some accent can confuse the author and the reader.
  • GENERAL RULE: when doing unusual dialogue, write like a reader. It’s no good being clever if no one knows what you’re doing.

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