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