Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dialogue Ailments

Dialogue is a powerful tool for a writer, but it can cause a lot of unexpected problems. It’s not like jabbering away on paper. We have to use dialogue at the right time and in the right way for it to be effective. Here are some of the stumbling blocks.

Warning -- stay alert to the many ailments that can come between the lines of dialogue.


Identifiers, also known as attributives, are words such as ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ that tell us who’s speaking. For rhythm and pacing we have to put them in the right spots. We have to decide whether they belong at the beginning, middle or end of the dialogue. How should we mix them up so they don’t call attention to themselves or get in the way? Listen to how they sound.

The word ‘said’ can get monotonous if we use it too often, but be careful not to use too many replacement verbs that call attention to themselves. Here are a few: she chirped, he spat, she whined, he sneered, she cooed etc. These words make me draw pictures in my mind. Can you picture a girl really chirping or tweeting? Tweeting, maybe yes, but not in the context of talking.

Rapid-fire dialogue

It’s a bad idea to write long interchanges of conversation without any pauses in between. Do you know any long-winded people? I certainly do. If they’re boring in person, they’re even worse on the page. Readers tend to skip those parts and we, as writers, don’t want our readers to skip over anything!

So dialogue should be broken up and stretched out with pauses and breaks to the right length for the scene. It shouldn’t run down the page with breakneck speed, but it shouldn’t drag on and on either. Be aware of good pacing for the scene you’re writing. Obviously, an action scene is much faster paced than a romantic scene. If it’s not, try revising.

Dialogue interrupted

Dialogue interrupted by long blocks of description or too many attributions stop the flow. But when you’re writing description (weaving it in, of course!) it’s fine to break it up with a little dialogue. Always consider the flow and the pacing.


Commonplace, every day dialogue isn’t an attention grabber. It won’t interest anyone in reading the scene, but it’s easily cured. Simply delete all the greetings and niceties and superfluous chitchat. Start with the interesting stuff to draw a reader into the drama. Tedious dialogue is a terrible way for a writer to ease into a scene.

“Hello, how are you?”
“Fine, thanks. How are you?”
Close book.


Dialogue used to convey information to the reader sounds fake and amateurish. People don’t talk this way and our characters shouldn’t either. Informative dialogue is often backstory where the writer is trying to fill the reader in on important events that already happened. But this is a clumsy way to do it and makes a reader roll her eyes. It can often start out with, “As you know…”

If the information is happening in the present, show it. Don’t have the characters just talk about it. Show, don’t tell. Don’t forget that.


Melodramatic dialogue can sound too cool, dramatic and clever. Sometimes it sounds overwrought. It’s definitely not the way most people talk. Use it sparingly and at the right moment.

Drama is about contrast. If everything is said in the same way, it’s not effective. (For example, I remember a pastor who overemphasized everything he said and gave every word equal importance. After a while nothing seemed really important.)

High drama can be conveyed in ways other than dialogue. Action along with dialogue might be better. If there’s too much melodrama, you can always tone it down. On the other hand, drama and emotion are necessary to a story. Finding a balance is the key.

Remember not all characters are melodramatic types. So don’t give them over-the-top dialogue to spout if it doesn’t fit their personality.

Romance and love scenes are prone to melodrama especially if the emotions are expressed in a lot of dialogue. Strong feelings can be shown in ways other than strong speech. Julie is the master of writing all about kissing and conveying emotion! But we know that, don’t we?


Dialogue can be hard to follow when a writer uses dialect or twang or too much slang. This will probably slow the reader down and be difficult to read.

It’s also hard to follow dialogue without identifiers (who’s saying what) or when there’s so much description or internalization between sentences of dialogue.

A good critique partner can tell you if your dialogue needs to be revised. It’s also important to read the dialogue aloud to see if it sounds natural.

Have you come across any other problems with dialogue? How have you corrected them?

If you’re interested in winning a copy of A Path toward Love, my historical romance set in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, please leave your e-mail address.


Virginia Carmichael Munoz said...

“Hello, how are you?”
“Fine, thanks. How are you?”
Close book.

HAHAHAHA! I yawn in real life during those conversations, too.

Melissa Jagears said...

I always do a pass through my chapters where I read nothing but the dialog aloud, skimming down the chapter.

That helps me figure out if something sounds unnatural because I had a character "respond" to the previous characters Interior Monologue or other pitfalls.

And it can clue me in to my characters not having individual voices. If I as the author while reading the dialog by itself don't know who is talking by listening to their "speech" then I need to work on the characters voices more.

Edwina said...

Thanks for such a great post. I would love to read your book!

Cara Lynn James said...

Good morning!

Virginia, obviously a boring "Hello, how are you?" conversation has no hook to catch your interest. That kind of beginning is the sign of an amateur because you seldom read it in a published book. Editors reject manuscripts with too much mind-numbing stuff.

Debra E. Marvin said...

Well, I read it out loud, and as Melissa said, I read only dialogue some of those times.

I love writing dialogue. Especially during NaNo or first drafts. Letting the characters surprise me by what they say really keeps the flow going.

okay, next question - I have seen a lot of people spell it dialog lately. I like the dialogue version. What's the scoop?

Cara Lynn James said...

Characters all sounding alike is definitely a problem. I love stories where the characters sound so unique you don't need attributions to figure out who is talking. But it can be hard if they're all from the same location, class etc. A character can use a particular word as long as they don't repeat it too often.

Cara Lynn James said...

Debra, I think you can spell dialogue both ways. Anyone disagree?

Rose said...

Hi Cara,

Great reminders. I have a very hard time reading "dialect" dialogue.

Amy Campbell said...

Great post. A lot to think about. Thanks.
Would love to be entered for the drawing.
Campbellamyd at Gmail dot com

Kav said...

The identifers are what surprised me when I found out they were a no-no a few years ago. I prided myself on finding interesting substitutes for 'he said, she said' and I was crushed. LOL I remember whole English classes on creative speech tags. So I tried to study how to do without them but the trouble was the authors I was reading were doing such a good job with their dialogue that I could't spot their techniques! Which is exactly how those scenes should read, right?

Cara Lynn James said...

Hi, Amy!

Rose, back when I was in school I remember reading a lot of dialogue in 19th century novels. I don't even try anymore because it's like slogging through the mud.

Cara Lynn James said...

Kav, a few identifiers are okay, but not too many. Don't use memorable ones since they're supposed to blend in. They never used to bother me until I read they were a no-no.

Sometimes being a writer turns me into a critic instead of just a reader.

Glynna Kaye said...

Excellent, CARA! Dialogue lends a reader-friendly white space to a page, and these are great reminders/cautions on how to make the most of it!

DebH said...

“Hello, how are you?”
“Fine, thanks. How are you?”

i think the only time this would remotely work is if the hero and heroine are in a situation where they are both uncomfortable in each other's presence and they are making "small" talk to fill the silence.

nice reminder post. i've been told i do too much dialogue and not enough description. i do know that i don't do an information dump in my dialogue, i guess i just have too much talk, not enough environment. hmmmmm...

i'm always in for a book.

C.E. Hart said...

I love riveting dialogue.

"What's up"
"Nice dress"
This is ordinary, everyday language. I want extraordinary--which is why I READ! :)

Thanks for the great tips on writing dialogue.

nicnac63 AThotmail DOT com

Jeanne T said...

Cara--you give some great tips about dialogue. Thanks! I appreciate your reminder to check the pacing of the dialogue within the scene. I'm re-working a scene right now where I think one of my characters may come across as a little preachy. So I'm trying to figure out how she can share the truths she has to share in a more natural way.

Thanks for sharing your insights today!

pol said...

Good morning Cara, I would love to win this book to read and I am sure it is written well. As a reader I have seen some books with too much "he said-she said" but then again some that dont say enough. balance must be alfully hard for you authors.
I am prone to skip some pages if they dont measure up but if the over-all story is a good one I will read to the finish.
thanks for sharing today

Paula O(kyflo130@yahoo.com)

Marianne said...

Dialogue? what's that? skip it if it's too long! Yep, that's me as a reader. i have trouble with chit chat in real life, don't want it in novels. Yes, i would love a chance to read your novel. Thanks for a great post and the chance to win.



Ruth Logan Herne said...

First, where is Mary Virginia's poetic pic for her profile????


Second, Cara, I have to revise dialogue all the time in my read-throughs because what goes down on the page initially isn't the rhythm I want later....

But those revisions can be the most fun. The teasing, the reparte, the scorching looks...

and the naughty internal thoughts!!!

Probably my fave right there!

Jeanne T said...

Melissa--what a great idea to read only the dialogue out loud. I never thought to do that. Thanks for sharing.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Great post on dialogue Cara. Dialogue is so important.

Thanks also for trading days with me. I'm having a blast with my grand nephew. We hiked one of the red rock trails in Sedona yesterday and will go to Wild Africa Park today.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading a book right now that used a "Hey, what's up?" boring-type of exchange back and forth. It worked, though, because the couple hadn't seen each other in years and she was trying to act like it had no affect on her. Any other time it would've came off flat.

This is such a timely post. I don't hardly ever go back to check my dialogue because I have such a problem w/passive verbs and simple grammars mistakes I don't think of it. But spicing up dialogue is sooo much more fun than trying to find a way to delete "was."

Connie Queen

Bridgett Henson said...

Great Post, Clara. No need to enter me in the contest. I enjoyed this book and its unique setting.

In "The Writer's Handbook 2001," (yes, I actually read those things) Barnaby Conrad advised writers to listen in on surrounding conversations. This has helped my dialogue writing tremendously. You guys should try it. You'll be surprised at the words used and how they're implemented. Especially in our younger generations.

Being from the South, I cringe when I read dialect. Yeah, we talk like that. Ain't and ya'll are common words. But don't try to imitate a language you don't understand. (Sorry for the rant. Twang is a pet peeve of mine.)

Missy Tippens said...

Cara, what a great post! Dialogue can be really tricky to get just right. I know I've had places where my editor has had to tell me to cut the chit- chat! :)

I'm with Virginia. I cracked up when you said "yawn. Close the book." LOL

Missy Tippens said...

Melissa, I have to work on that, too. My characters DO tend to all sound alike: like me!

Missy Tippens said...

I tend to write a first draft that's mostly dialogue. It's basically talking heads! Then I need to go back and add in tags and thoughts to break up the flow.

Jan Drexler said...

I'm with Kav - it must be old school stuff to come up with dialogue tags that express the speaker's emotion. It was something I had to unlearn when I got back to writing after...well, many years.

I like dialogue that's combined with action. The speakers are doing something - working, walking, taking care of babies, cooking - and action beats break up the dialogue and the conversation comes across as more natural.

I'd love to win your book, Cara!

Janet Dean said...

Excellent points on healing our dialogue, Cara. We don't want to write anything that our readers want to skip or can't understand without re-reading.

I'm reading A Path Toward Love and really enjoying the story! You're a master at creating interesting settings and heroines who fight society's conventions.

In the early days I wrote talking heads like a rough draft. I forgot that people don't just talk. They act, react, move.


CatMom said...

Great reminders today, Cara--thank you! Would love to read your new book (anything historical AND set in the mountains sounds wonderful *smile*).
Blessings, Patti Jo


Tina Radcliffe said...

Oh, Cara. THIS reminder was just what I needed today!!!!

Cara Lynn James said...

Hi, Glynna! I like white space and I hear editors do to!

Chunks of dialogue might not be as bad as chunks of description, but more than 3 sentences together can easily become a monologue. Then it's too much like real life!

Cara Lynn James said...

Deb, I think you're right about mundane dialogue sometimes working. If it shows nervousness between the characters or some aspect of their relationship it would be fine. But not too often or the reader will get bored.

I write a lot of dialogue too. Maybe you could add more between the lines and it won't seem so talky. Just don't lose the flow.

Christina said...

I am working on a first draft right now and I kept thinking there are a lot of long stretches of dialogue with a lot of boring identifiers. Obviously I'll have to go back and fix it all.

I was always told to put the best pieces in between the quotes, to reveal the best information in dialogue.

Vince said...

Deep Dialogue

“Hello, how are you?”

After ten years you show up an hour before my wedding and that’s all you have to say.

“Fine, thanks. How are you?”

What you really mean is am I going to run away from this wedding like I did ours ten years ago.


And no I’m not running away this time. Why didn’t you come after me you big oaf?

Are you hooked? : )

I think dialogue is all in the context. Dialogue by itself is like a musical conductor by himself. Necessary but not sufficient. : )

Great post. I need a lot of work on dialogue so all my characters don’t sound alike or even worse sound like me.


P.S. Please put me in for a copy of your book.

Cara Lynn James said...

Hi, C.E. You're so right -- we don't want ordinary conversation in a book. We don't want to pay good money for it either.

Cara Lynn James said...

Jeanne, I find it hard to decide how much 'preachiness' is necessary for the story and what's over the top. Sometimes I have the character internalize her spirituality instead of putting it into dialogue. It's always a judgment call.

Cara Lynn James said...

Paula, in the end it's the story that's crucial! How we convey it is important, but the story keeps readers reading, I think.

Cara Lynn James said...

Hi, Marianne! I think mundane chit-chat bores most of us. How do we put up with it in real life? Fortunately most books don't have much of it. That's a good reason to hire a freelance editor if you're self-publishing.

Cara Lynn James said...

Ruthy, I like to do revisions too. My dialogue gets as much revising as any other part of the story.

Myra Johnson said...

Drat. I just typed a whole comment and Blogger lost it.

Anyway, I was saying what great advice you've given here, Cara!

What I typically have to watch out for is using too many "wells" and "ohs" in dialogue. They sound natural in my head, but on paper they can really stand out.

Anonymous said...

She pulled from her dreams, peered through a grainy fog, and focused on the strange man beside the hospital bed.
He leaned forward with a smile that curved his lips and lit his deep green eyes. "Hi." He covered her hand with his own. "How are you?"
Other than having no idea who you are?
"I'm..." Was that her squeaky voice? She cleared her dry throat. "I'm fine. Although I feel like I've been hit by a bus."
His smile thinned. His brows rose. "That's because you were," he declared, patting her hand.

Not the greatest example for sure. But it was given on the fly. Just to say that even "Hi, how are you?" can be somewhat interesting (or maybe not) surrounded by the right beats.

Great reminders, Cara.

Dialogue is important. I, too, am one of those readers who skims if it gets too drawn out with nothing but talking heads. But I must admit I've probably done every one of those dialogue don't.
I get tired if he said, she said, it gets monotonous too.

I suppose that's why there are so many writing styles and readers to go with them

Tina P.

Deborah Dunson said...

I would love to read your book.


Cara Lynn James said...

Sandra, I'm so glad you're having fun playing! I hope the weather is great. It's raining here in nw Florida.

Cara Lynn James said...

Connie, the chit-chat kind of dialogue is fine if there's a purpose to it. It helps to have a sub-text where they're saying so much more than actual words.

Cara Lynn James said...

Bridgett, I know what you mean about regional dialect. I've lived in Texas for 3 years, Virginia for 5 and north Florida for 10 and I'm still sure I couldn't write like a 'native.' So I think I'll stick to writing New Englanders. We don't have as many colloquealisms so it's much easier.

Cara Lynn James said...

Missy, once in a while I write a talking heads scene and then fill in. That's because otherwise I can lose my way. I wander a lot.

Cara Lynn James said...

Jan, I like dialogue combined with action too. Then the scene doesn't seem static. But since I write Gilded Age stories there are more tea and talking heads scenes than I really like.

Virginia Carmichael Munoz said...

Right, I think that awkward dialogue is useful, but so many times we write just like we speak... and lots of wows and ums just don't make for good reading.

I'm like Myra, I have to watch the 'ohhs'.

Sherida said...

Thank you for your post! I am currently working on dialogue---which doesn't feel quite right yet. Your suggestions will help. Thanks!

Mary Cline said...

Hi Cara,
Thanks for another great post.

I am a little stuck in my WIP right now, she is shy and he is reticent I need to get at least one of them talking or nothing will happen.

Don't enter me, I have your book, I read it, it was wonderful.

Debby Giusti said...

Great info on dialogue, Cara. Thanks!

Having too many characters in a scene can present problems with dialogue as well. I try to have two folks conversing at a time and allow others in the scene to be occupied "off stage," so to speak.

Sometimes three or four folks need to interact and then tags are important so the reader can identify each speaker. Action beats can also help. If too many folks are gabbing at one time, I find the pacing often slows and the interaction can quickly become too confusing. :)

Cara Lynn James said...

Janet, I think talking heads in a first draft are fine. But then we have to get them moving or at least thinking. But at least you see that the dialogue really makes sense.

I'm so glad you like A Path toward Love.

Cara Lynn James said...

Hi, Patti Jo and Tina! Tina, I hope you're working hard doing all the things you have to do. You're a busy woman.

Mary Connealy said...

Hi, Cara. Great post. Something that is so tricky is, often a writer (me perhaps?) will use dialogue to hide a backstory dump. It can work if done right and it's certainly better than just long blocks of unbroken backstory, but it still grinds the story to a halt so be wary of doing it.

Mary Connealy said...

I know when I'm first writing a scene it's not uncommon for me to sort of do a back and forth talking heads minimally attributed dialogue exchange that goes on and on and on. I know when I'm doing this I've got to fix it, but at first I just want to get their exchange down, so I power through it that way.
Then I come back and tack on movement and setting and such.

Susan Anne Mason said...

Great tips, Cara! And so true.

One thing I've learned lately (while revising) is that when one character asks a question, the other character doesn't have to answer 'yes' or 'no'. Go through your dialogue and see where the explanation following the 'yes' or 'no' is sufficient. You'd be amazed how many words you can eliminate this way!

sbmason at sympatico dot ca

Mary Connealy said...

What Vince said about dialogue in deep point of view made me think of this from my book releasing in March 2013, SWEPT AWAY.
The bad guy, Simon Bullard, thinks Dare Riker, who will be the hero in book two, was with his wife when she lost a baby in childbirth.

“Don’t try and lie your way out of this, Riker.”
“Simon, did Lana tell you she saw this baby? Because there was no baby born. You need to calm down and talk to me. You know she…she…” Was dropped on her head too many times as a child? Was a foam-at-the-mouth lunatic? Was crazy as a drunken she-weasel? “…was upset."

KC Frantzen and May the K9 Spy said...

Super reminders, Cara.
Thank you so much.

Starting book 3 so GR8 timing too!

Long live Seekerville!!!

Virginia Carmichael Munoz said...

*snort* Love internal dialogue.

But I've resolved to never speak to Mary C in person.

"I'm so glad to meet you, Mary! I'm a huuuuuge fan!"

"Virginia, you're a really" crazy old bat who needs to step back before I call security or whip out my shotgun "great fan to have. Thanks for heading my" group of lonely, over-emotional stalkers who've all named children after me "fan club."

Pam Hillman said...

Have you come across any other problems with dialogue?

Yes, I have. Most of the time when a man opens his mouth to speak in my novel, I wonder what's coming.

In the rewrite, I generally cut 99% of what he said.

I live with the strong, silent type... bless his heart!

Jeanne T said...

Cara, thanks for your thoughts. I think you're right, in that I need to see what needs to be internal with my character. :)

Pam, my honey reads some of my guy-to-guy scenes, and he almost always cuts words. We are so different. :) Love it.

Myra Johnson said...

LOL, Mary, I love your way with words!

Mary Connealy said...

VIRGINIA, bless you, girl for not thinking I'm the crazy old bat. I'm sure that's only because you don't know me well enough. LOL

Mary Connealy said...

And you know, if you did want to name your children after me, that would be great. Not because it's after me, but because there are NO MARY's anymore. Your child would have a very unique and yet easily spelled and pronounced name.
I'm waiting for a vampire to date a girl name Mary, then the pendulum will swing back to MARY!

Cara Lynn James said...

Hey, Christina! It seems there's always more to fix on a wip. It's never perfect enough, I'm afraid. But I'd rather revise than do a lot of other things.

Cara Lynn James said...

Yes, Vince, I'm definitely hooked! Have you written the book yet? This would make a great story.

Cara Lynn James said...

Myra, 'so' and 'well' and 'just' are my favorites. That's how I talk SO they seem very natural. SO why can't I use them???

Cara Lynn James said...

Tina, now write the story! That has lots of meaning.

Clari Dees said...

Vince, I'm hooked! Loved the deep dialogue example. When can I read the rest of the book? ;-)

Cara Lynn James said...

Hi, Deborah and Sherinda!

Mary, maybe you need a little action, not more words. That'll solve your problem.

Cara Lynn James said...

I agree, Debby, I try to keep only 2 in a scene if possible.

Susan, I like to eliminate words too because if I don't my editor will. It's better to do it myself.

Janet Dean said...

Dialogue is a great place to rev up the conflict between the hero and heroine. Often with words that are never said but seem to hang in the air between them.


Marissa said...

As a reader, it's sometimes really hard to tell who's saying what, or if there's a joke and I don't catch it, I'm confused.


Missy Tippens said...

LOL, Virginia!! I'm with you. Scared of the wild thoughts going through Mary's head in a conversation. :)

Cara Lynn James said...

Good point, Susan.

Hi, KC!

Pam, I agree it's hard to write the dialogue for a man. But at least you don't have to write much.

Mary Cline said...

I actually have quite a bit of action, it's squeezing the words in.

There seem to be plenty of Marys here.

Lyndee said...

Thanks for the post, Cara. Good reminders. I have your book already in the TBR pile! Also, love your comment about not needing to write much for a man's dialogue, lol.

Mary Connealy said...

Yes there are Mary's but check out the elementary schools ZERO!!!

Cara Lynn James said...

Mary, Mary was a very popular name through the ages until recently. It's one of my favorite names.

Amy R.S. said...

Hi. Great post. I as a reader never really put too much thought into dialog. But now that I think about it, it can really make the story flow or sound awkward. I have had to reread parts of a conversation before just to figure out who was saying what.

Thanks for a chance to win a copy of your book.

arsmelser6 at gmail dot com

Nancy C said...

Sorry to be so late to read your post. You have me wondering about a scene where there's been a massive misunderstanding and then A explains to B why it's so funny (something that happened in the past). I need to reexamine that.

Nancy C

Julie Lessman said...

CARA ... soooo sorry I'm so late, but the day got away from me. However, I LOVE this post because dialogue is critical to a good story and the one thing most people are drawn to. So if the writer botches it, I don't think there's much hope for the book.

NATURAL IS ABSOLUTELY KEY!!! And the biggest problem I have with dialogue is when my copy editor nails me for an info dump that doesn't sound natural, which I tend to do more than I like. Fortunately, she's excellent and catches most of them ... I hope!! :)


Mary Preston said...

When the dialogue flows naturally the story likewise flows. As a reader I appreciate this.


Becky Doughty said...

Hi Cara,

This is a very timely post for me - I'm wrapping up my NaNo WIP and working hard at not rushing my scenes. I, too, like so many, read my WIPs out loud...and I'm extra blessed because I have a brave and very manly husband who reads my WIP out loud to me so that I can hear how others will read it. He's very patient and has learned to let ME notice when things don't flow. :-)

Thanks - would love a copy of your book!



shelia said...

would love to win the book!my e-mail is sheliarha64@yahoo.com

Sarah said...

I would love to win,Enter me!!
Thanks for the giveaway and God Bless!!
Sarah Richmond

Donna Schlachter said...

Thanks for a great post.

Anonymous said...

I would love to read A Path Toward Love. Thanks for having the giveaway.


Abigail Richmond said...


Thanks and God Bless!!!

Janet Kerr said...

The dialogue ailments are so helpful. Thank you for putting them together.
Please enter me in your draw. Your book has a lovely cover.