Can you follow this?

In December I promised you a series of writing tips on dialogue, in an attempt to eliminate all ailments that might determine a publisher to throw the manuscript off their desk and into the slush pile. So far we’ve attacked this tongue-twister from every possible angle bar one.

Here’s a quick recap for those who might’ve missed a post or two:

1. Dialogue that is either too “loud” or too “quiet” can be assessed simply by skimming through and publishers often dismiss a manuscript that abounds in either without reading any further. For easy solutions for both, please read: Talk to me. Here too, you will find a few tips on

  • Under-used, over-used or misused attributives or identifiers,
  • How to avoid “dialogue diarrhea”,
  • The importance of building momentum and
  • On the pitfalls of journalistic style

2. Hi. How are you? dealt with another common dialogue problem and one of the most frequent bases for rejection: the use of “realistic” dialogue.

In the last two articles I attempted to address dialogue that sounds “fake”:

3. Faking It warned against using dialogue to convey information that characters would’ve otherwise known, whereas…

4. Melodrama and I took on dialogue that is over the top and instead of amplifying that much needed dramatic effect, ends up diluting it.

dialogue-cartoon-300x242Today’s article is the last in the series and it will do battle with a multitude of dialogue sins that amount to the same problem: try as much as you can, it is impossible to follow.

Whereas a friendly reader might spend a quarter of an hour pouring over the manuscript in an attempt to decipher it, an agent or publisher will not.

There are three main reasons why dialogue might become incomprehensible to the reader.

  1. Attributives or Identifiers. I’ve mentioned this before, but it is such a common occurrence that it is worth returning to it. Dialogue that lacks identifiers makes it impossible for a reader to follow who is speaking, especially if there are more than two characters in the mix. This also occurs when two characters have the same gender and the author only identifies them with ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. Sometimes it is difficult for us as authors to know whether we have this problem, so it may pay to ask your readers to be on the look out for this. For more on identifiers, please revisit Talk to me.
  2. Dialect. I used to think that the use of dialect or jargon in fiction is regarded as a plus. After all, it can be a good way to distinguish between a plethora of characters and give a glimpse into their background and social standing. However, more often than not, dialogue that relies excessively on regional slang ends up being illegible. Even when it is written well, it will slow down the reader and might even determine them to give up in frustration. So… if it is absolutely essential for it to appear in your work, tread with care and use it sparingly.
  3. The mystery. Ah yes… we all like to keep our readers on their toes, surprising them right left and centre. Twists are always welcome in fiction, however, when it comes to dialogue the overuse of cryptic references will make a reader feel like a spare wheel and they will soon give up trying to guess what on earth the characters are going on about. This is not to say that there is no place for subtlety in fiction, but it ought to be handled with care: intrigue, without alienating the reader.

This is it: the BIG five for dialogue. While there is much more to be said about how to write dialogue well, I wanted to keep matters short and sweet. Hope you enjoyed the ride.

If all the above dialogue problems are fixed, your manuscript is well presented, it has a distinctive authorial voice as well as using the appropriate style for the type of fiction you are writing, the prose sounds just right, and all modifiers comparisons are used sparingly and well, then we’ve reached our goal: they are reading it.

Sure there are still a few more things too look into, but these are for another day. For now, hope you’ve put your revision hat on and moving forward with lighting speed.

Fingers crossed


Melodrama and I

– “Too clever! No, my boy, you’re too clever.  That beats everything!”
– “But, why, why?”
– “Why, because everything fits too well…it’s too melodramatic.”

(Zossimov rejecting Razhumikin’s theory regarding the escape in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment)

melodrama_7456I do love a little melodrama. It must stem from my misspent youth reading the Russians – Dostoevsky in particular – or perhaps from having been immersed in a culture that tends to translate that particular aspect of fiction into reality. It is one predisposition that I’ve been working hard to eliminate from my own writing, and particularly from writing dialogue.

It may appear counter-intuitive. Dialogue is inherently dramatic, isn’t it? Or at least, it ought never be commonplace. However, unless you are Russian and/or your characters span from the neurotic to the hysterical, it is best to steer clear of overly-dramatised dialogue.

Melodrama – however well intentioned – will always come with a big whiff of fake.

The distinction between drama and melodrama is a subtle one. Dialogue that is filled to the brim with drama will inevitably fall into the melodramatic camp, while dialogue that has no drama whatsoever will be commonplace. Both extremes are undesirable and striking the right balance is not always easy.

Here are some of the things I look for in my dialogue to ensure that both are avoided:

  • Abundance of exclamation marks usually tends to indicate that I’ve fallen into the melodrama trap. Building up to a moment and then tailing them off, as well as adding contrast between lines full of drama and quieter moments is a good way to rectify this.
  • If the plot itself is coming to a dramatic point then it can sustain a much higher degree of drama in dialogue. If that is not the case, then the drama in the dialogue will read forced and unnatural.
  • Sometimes, even when I reach a dramatic moment, using dialogue that is “quiet” can in fact amplify the drama while avoiding sounding melodramatic. For example, a wife who just heard her husband’s confession that he had been cheating on her could start shouting something along the lines of “You bastard! I gave you the best years of my life! I hate you!” or… she could simply stare him down in silence and then take her wedding ring off, put it on the table, and leave.

“We seem to be unable to resist overstating every aspect of ourselves: how long we are on the planet for, how much it matters what we achieve, how rare and unfair are our professional failures, how rife with misunderstandings are our relationships, how deep are our sorrows. Melodrama is individually always the order of the day.” 

― Alain de Botton

Faking It

You’re missing the plot.

Am I? Umm.

Why is Steven acting this way? I just don’t get it.

No worries. Will make him tell Jane about it, and you’ll be in on the secret too. Sorted!


faking it

Unless Steven and Jane are cardboard characters and you are weaving a fictitious cardboard universe, do not – I repeat – do not use dialogue to convey information.

It will be, and it will read, fake.

The only times when it’s ok to include plot information in dialogue is if the other character can’t be expected to know that information and there is a very good reason for them requesting it. Otherwise… put your foot down (or pen – I’m not particular on those matters) and find a different way to include pieces of plot or backstory that are important to your narrative. Internal monologue springs to mind, but even there: tread with care. (See – it’s making me rhyme)

Subtlety is key. Remember the “show versus tell” rule.

Some things to be on the lookout for:

  • Dialogue is a great way to show the intricacies of our characters’ relationships, their innermost desires and fears. If it is used to convey information about the on-going narrative or backstory instead of doing the aforementioned, then we have a problem. Most of the time the information conveyed would’ve been already known to the characters and it would not be something they would discuss. If that is the case: cut without mercy.
  • If we rely on dialogue to tell the reader instead of taking the harder route of showing, then of course the only solution is… well. Work harder at showing and allow dialogue to show the characters’ reaction to current events rather than telling the reader what’s happening.
  • Imagine that the reader knows everything you know about the backstory and current events when writing dialogue. This is a great technique for avoiding the trap of “informative” – my preferred term is FAKE – dialogue.

Let’s be honest, as writers we are God-like in our imagined universe. We have unlimited power and control. This desire to control at times will serve us well, but if we’re using dialogue to wield power in order to indulge in our own need to control then we might get ourselves into no amount of trouble.

The only solution to the control-freak within is to give him a good telling-to and make him let go. Instead, allow the characters to take charge for a while.

You may be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

Happy Chatting, m’ dears 😀

Hi. How are you?

“Good. Thanks. You?” Jane said, smiling.

“I’m good too. What a beautiful day,” Steve said, taking his seat at the desk.

“It is, isn’t it? Lovely,” Jane agreed.

“Yes. Lovely. Wish I didn’t have to work so late,” Steve complained.

“Want some coffee?” Jane asked.

“That would be great,”  Steve smiled. “Black, no sugar, please.”

“Ok. Will be back in five,” Jane got up from her desk and walked slowly to the office kitchenette to make some coffee for both of them. It was going to be another long day at the office.

“Kill me. Kill me now,” said the reader, bored out of their wits, and after a moment’s consideration threw the manuscript into the open fire.


In Talk to me we looked at some preliminary problems that may get a manuscript rejected before a single line of dialogue is read. Everyday dialogue – dialogue that strives to be realistic to the point of dullness – is very easy to spot and if one line of it makes its way onto the first page, then chances are there will be plenty of it to be “enjoyed” on every page after that.

If the agent or publisher needed any further confirmation that they can dispense with the manuscript, and save themselves and future readers a few precious hours, then they need look no further: “realistic” dialogue is one of the most frequent bases for rejection.

Luckily, this is one dialogue problem that can be easily rectified:

1. Resist the urge to write “realistic” dialogue. We don’t need to see characters arriving at work and greeting one another. If what they say is commonplace and dull, then this is exactly how the reader will feel, so let’s cut out the helloes and goodbyes and get into the thick of things.

If it doesn’t move the plot forward, reveal something essential about the character or add some tension and conflict to the page, then it is best left out.

2. It may be that some of our dialogue works, but it took us a while to warm up to it. Search for lines of dramatic dialogue. Make sure to keep those in, while discarding the “warming-up” part of the dialogue.

Sometimes I have a lot of conflict and tension to start with, but then I notice it disappear towards the end of the scene. It’s almost as if my characters have run out of steam and have nothing more dramatic to say. The end of dialogue is another good place to look for lines to cut.

3. If all dialogue in the manuscript is commonplace, then the only solution is to discard it all and start again.

Where are we in the storyline? What is the scene contributing to the overall story? Why are those characters there in the first place? What is their relationship? Does this conversation move the plot forward or is it fodder?

Dialogue should always be tense. Characters don’t chat and play nice, they parry with one another. Let the duel begin!

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…


“Kill me then! I never asked to be born anyway!”


I am the girl who ought never been born.

Was I meant to know this, or did it slip up in anger? There was someone else loved for some twelve joyful weeks. Another body grasped at life, cells dividing, multiplying to bring forth the beat of another’s heart.

An elder brother or sister, I thought at first. But no… That could not be. My existence relied on their having perished. I was an interloper, colonising a womb still grieving for its loss, stepping over bloodied memories and anchoring myself into its wall when the coast got clear. It may have protested, but it did not manage to shift me. I wedged in; not a quitter me. A survivor.

I did not ask to be born.

How often did I feel it as a child; and thought of it more often still, though seldom speaking out. There were slipups however.


It was a sunbathed morning in June. The war was afoot. The White Queen marshalled her pawns in a straight line and then proceeded to inspect her cavalry. The knights’ armour gleamed as white as the coats of their steeds. In the distance, across the carpeted fur-land, the Black Queen was similarly occupied. The Kings took their siestas. They weren’t much good these kings: could hardly move for old age, and even when they did they were bound to get themselves into more trouble that was worth anyone’s while.

‘Twas time to advance. The queens met on neutral ground – at Giantdoll-Hill – and deliberated which of their parties ought to make the first move. The custom, according to grandfather, was for the White to go first, but that struck the Black Queen as somewhat unfair. They appealed to my wisdom and experience. A new set, I suppose I did have a few years of know-how on them. After thoughtful consideration, I decided that the best way out of the conundrum would be to flip a coin. Let fate play her hand. I’d seen father do it. It looked like fun.

Problem was, I had no coin of my own, and mother had to be kept in the dark about my play. I’d been instructed to tidy up my room an age ago, and she would be none too pleased if she discovered that instead of a clean-up, I opted to add to the mess.

You should never-ever think about things you do not want to happen. No sooner did I think of her, that she presented herself on the doorstep: a giant urn, both hands implanted on broad hips, one flaming cheek skyward and another touching the parquetted floors of Lucifer’s homestead.

“I’ve had it with you. Look at this mess. Why can’t you just do as I say?”

She hurried forward and gathered the chess pieces in her lap.

Disgruntled, I plunked myself into the middle of the room, determined not to lift one finger in her aid. Mother looked worn. Something in my attitude irked her. I knew I ought to help her and that I’d pay for it later if I kept it up, but I was in a combative mood and beat the guilt-tripped reason into silence. At last, mother lost it.

“Selfish girl! You’ll do what I say or – I swear to God, just as I gave birth to you – I’ll kill you with my own two hands!”

“Kill me then! I never asked to be born anyway!”


I am the girl who lost her mother.

It took me years to find my way back to her. I blamed her for many things, bad things that happened to us. I blamed her too for failing to keep me in the dark about them. I didn’t want to grow up. Not then. Not that way.

She might’ve been a better daughter, that other girl who didn’t make it through.

It was easier to numb the pain, pretend it wasn’t there. I wanted to be free of it, even if she couldn’t be.