Talk to me

“It is a little late in the game for this, isn’t it?”

“You trust me, don’t you?”

“If it’s so damned important then it should’ve come first.”

“It is important. It’s the quickest way to determine if you’re skilled enough to make it. Thing is…”

“Just tell me already!”

“Publishers don’t look at dialogue first. It only gets a look in after they’ve checked the other big five. If your manuscript suffers from any of them: sloppy presentation, inadequate style, ‘wrong’ sound, clichéd comparisons or a plethora of unnecessary, commonplace adjectives and adverbs, then they –”

“Check for dialogue. Yes. Got it. What next?”

“Well… If your dialogue is poor too then they don’t bother with the rest.”

“I don’t think this one will make it big on their list of ‘good’ dialogue either,” I said, shuffling from one foot to the other. Could kill for a ciggie. All this talk about yet more things that would get my manuscript shoved into the rejection pile was beginning to grind me down. It wasn’t a good idea to keep at it without some caffeinated backup first.

“It’s a start. Shall we?”


Dialogue. I used to throw myself into writing pages and pages of it, because I enjoyed it, and because it came easy. My first draft was what in publisher parlance is called ‘loud’: filled to the brim with chattering lines.

Those days are long gone. I had to rein in my enthusiasm and use it sparingly once I realised that such powerful weapons ought to be wielded with care.

Since dialogue is prone to a thousand and one problems, this will be the first of several instalments. Possibly five, but we’ll see. I’ll play it by ear. What I will look into first is how we present dialogue, because this is the first indicator to an editor whether they can dismiss it before reading a single line.

So… open up your manuscript and start skimming. What do you see?

Have you come across of pages and pages of dialogue with no breaks in-between? If so, then we have a problem. Your prose is too ‘loud’ and an editor will dismiss it out of hand.

Have you read dozens of pages without coming across a single line of dialogue? Then it may be that your prose suffers from the opposite: it is too quiet.

Both issues have easy solutions: trim back and add pauses if you have too much dialogue; look for places where you may be able to insert a little conversation if you have too little of it.

Here are a few of the common problems and solutions to dialogue maladies:

1. Under-used, over-used or misused attributives or identifiers (he said, said she)

Attributives attribute speech, or to put it differently: identifiers identify who’s line of dialogue we are reading. When we have multiple characters then it is key to keep identifying them, otherwise the reader will get lost in the sea of “he and she said”. When there are only two characters, we can identify them to start with then switch to “he said” or “she said” and can even skip identifying them for a couple of lines if it is clear from the context who the speaker is.

Also, “he said” is preferable to “said he” unless you are writing a historical novel, and even then the first version reads better. The whole point of identifiers is to indicate the speaker while remaining “invisible” to the reader.

You can use identifiers at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the line. The last is almost always the better option, but there are times when a pause can be suggested by using it in the middle of the line.

Another option is to substitute identifiers with action: “whispered”, “cried”, “yelled” – just make sure this is done sparingly as action verbs are always more visible than the straightforward “said”.

Having no identifiers at all is not a good idea as this will lead to confusion and rejection.

2. Dialogue diarrhea (excuse the imagery): long, uninterrupted interchanges of dialogue can be spotted just by skimming through a manuscript and gives the impression of someone sprinting to the finish line.

Dialogue is inherently dramatic and accelerates pace. This is why it is important that both its quantity and quality be in keeping with the rest of the prose. Long stretches of dialogue need to be broken up, the excess eliminated, and snippets of “direction” introduced. After all, we don’t want talking heads – the characters need to be steeped into the scene, their environment, and interact with others even while speaking.

3. Dialogue without momentum – in opposition to the previous point – this is dialogue that needs to flow, but has been interrupted too often either by unnecessary identifiers or long stretches of description that have been mistimed.

To rectify this, we need to cut out the interruptions to a manageable level – especially for moments of tension, when no one cares what the room looks like and all they want to do is read the next witty line of dialogue instead.

4. Speaketh the journalist: This is rarely a problem for writers who are not also journalists, but worth a mention. Those writing in a journalistic style tend to “quote” their characters rather than letting them speak. Imagine this: two lovers that sound as if they are reporting breaking news. Dialogue is emotive not factual, so… the reporting is best left to newspaper articles.

This is all for now. Next instalment coming soon…

16 thoughts on “Talk to me

  1. some good pointers here 🙂
    i tried writing a novel with the right amount of ‘dialogue’ hehehehe
    having noticed over the years from The Greats that too much chat as i call it leads to a drawn out book which is only good if it’s extremely exciting or of the moment or thought provoking in a ‘talking heads’ style; i find it keeps me within a fragment of time.
    and the opposite, not enough talking leads to an impersonal feel where it’s harder to understand the characters thoughts. though this is ok if the story spans an extremely long time, like in The Silmarillion.
    taking this into account, i tried writing a novel about a dog that eats some dodgy bacon (this was pre horse meat scandal) and found that i could write the dialogue of every character besides the investigating detective. i just can’t place myself in his shoes or mind lol.
    i never did finish writing it 😦

  2. Dialogue diarrhea. I love it! Can that also apply to certain talkative people in real life? I’m thinking of some people who have the vocal runs right now…

  3. Thank you for all the great tips! I’m undergoing a few brainstorms for a couple of books and these are the perfect pointers for me to get started on when proofreading follows up. Thanks again!

  4. Yes mam, that where some good tips that I saved.
    By the way, the other day I was discussing with a fellow blogger was it important to put a word limit at the end of the day or not. He said he shoot for 3.000 words a day. I said that some writers say is not how much you write in a day but the quality of the writing. I can write two thousand words in a second with a big rant about something, but doing it for a book, for pure Literature that´s a hole new story.
    What do you think, should writers say “O.k at the end of this week I´m going to write X number of words” And how does that help?

    • Different writers approach the word limit differently. It is helpful to have a word count you aim for each day and stick to it. Whenever the muse keeps away, having something to work towards keeps the ball rolling. Personally, I prefer a smaller word count, because I think that something that can be achieved even on a busy day will avoid unnecessary frustrations. So… since the word limit for a novel is usually 80,000 words, I work on a 500 words a day basis and that ensures that I have a first draft written in 160 days, or six months – since there will be a few breaks in-between as well. This to me is an achievable goal. It worked for many published novelists so I hope it will work for me too.
      Of course, some days I will write more, but I always regard the extra word count as a bonus. 3000 words a day can be done – but I suspect that I would end up cutting most of it out during revision.
      It all depends on how you work best.
      Hope this helps, Charly.

      • Exactly, this person was frustrated and quite up-tight, plus she was trying to balance all that writing with going out with her friends and she left going out with her friends for the simple reason of achieving the word count.

        I can do 500 well written words, having had already a plan as to characters, plot, e.t.c. Since it´s my first time I´m going to try do write a novel or novella, 160 days 500 words a day, much more better for me. Plus is not like I have an editor screaming at my ear that the deadline is coming. I like that. You got it down to a math. literally.

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