Writers in the Storm

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August 19, 2013

5 Tips for Cheeseless Dialogue

Today we welcome Lori Freeland to WITS for the first time! Welcome Lori!

nocheeseI’d Like My Dialogue Cheeseless. Please.

Like a Lactose Intolerant prefers his pizza minus the gut-churning cheese, I want my dialogue devoid of dairy.

Have you ever heard agents or editors say they flip to the first section of dialogue and if it’s cheesy, they don’t bother with the read?

Here are five signs of cheesy dialogue.

I’ve used generic NO and YES examples below and put them in italics to distinguish from my comments.

1.      Contractions.

Unless English is your second language, or your character has passed the age of eighty, almost everyone uses contractions when they speak.

NO: “We are hitting the club tonight. What is up with you not wanting to dance anymore?”

YES: We’re hitting the club tonight. What’s up with you not wanting to dance anymore?”

Contractions make speech natural and help dialogue flow.

2.      Name Calling.

How many times do we actually say someone’s name in a conversation? Unless I’m trying to get your attention in a crowd, I’m betting rarely to never. Pay attention to your verbal interchanges and count how many times you say someone’s name in real life.

NO: “Well, Jennifer, I didn’t like his attitude.”

“Too bad, Lisa. He’s your new partner.”

YES: “I didn’t like his attitude.”

“Too bad. He’s your new partner.”

Sticking in names is a major pace-killer in any dialogue unless you’re trying to make an important point or one of your character’s idiosyncrasies is name-calling. By the way, name-calling from a psychological standpoint shows inferiority. The person doing the naming feels “less than” the other person and is grappling for the advantage. Great tip to remember in a power struggle conversation.

3.      Improper Punctuation.

When you use a dialogue tag like “said” use a comma.

NO: “Not gonna happen.” He said.

YES: “Not gonna happen,” he said.

When you use an action beat to tag the speaker, use a period.

NO: “Not gonna happen,” he slammed the mug on the desk and stomped from the office.

YES: “Not gonna happen.” He slammed the mug on the desk and stomped from the office.

Notice how adding the action tells the reader how the dialogue is spoken? He’s angry. And now we see the anger.

4.      Speaking of Tags.

Said, asked, and sometimes whispered are invisible tags. Your reader will skim over them. In this case, skimming is a good thing. The tags identify the speaker and don’t mess with the tempo.

Using any other tag is a speed bump. Using any other tag plus an “ly” adverb? That’s a tire-shredder.

NO: “I’m out of here,” she hissed.

Contrary to popular belief, people can’t actually hiss words. Unless they’re part-snake or a character from Harry Potter.

NO: “I’m out of here,” she said angrily.

YES: “I’m out of here,” she said.

YES: “I’m out of here.” She whirled in her red heels and clicked out the door.

The best one? The action showing her anger.

5.      Who Said What?

Paragraph and tag properly.

If Character A is speaking, he needs his own paragraph. That way, when Character B responds, in her own paragraph, we can follow their back-and-forth exchange of wit like a game of Championship Ping Pong.

Each player (speaker) has their own side of the table (paragraph) with the proper space (white space between paragraphs) keeping them separate.

In a quick back-and-forth, you don’t need to tag every sentence. Unless there are more than two characters speaking. Then your dialogue gets trickier.

NO: “That movie sent chills to places chills don’t belong.” Amber shuddered. “I know, right?” Leah pretended to agree. What would Amber say if she knew the truth?

YES: “That movie sent chills to places chills don’t belong.” Amber shuddered.

“I know, right?” Leah pretended to agree. What would Amber say if she knew the truth?

Stuck together, the dialogue becomes a puzzle with the wrong pieces jammed together. Separated, the conversation becomes clear.

NO: “What did you think was gonna happen? “ He held up his fingers, his face contorted in what looked like major disgust. Just watching those hands drove me wild. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

YES: “What did you think was gonna happen? “ He held up his fingers, his face contorted in what looked like major disgust.

Just watching those hands drove me wild. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

In the NO above, we’re not sure which words and thoughts belong with each speaker. Paragraphed out, the conversation leaves no confusion.

Cheesy dialogue is one-hundred-percent avoidable. Get in the habit of writing for pace. Include fragments. Read your dialogue out loud. Have someone else read your dialogue out loud.

The art of conversation is just that—an art. It’s part of the craft like anything else. Being aware of which of the five signs of cheese above marks your weakness can change the entire way you write dialogue in the future.

Is dialog hard for you? If not, do you have any other tips for us?

IMG_2904 (2)Lori Freeland is a Young Adult author who lives in the Dallas Area. She has a short story out in the YA volume of Wild at Heart, has published numerous articles with various e-zines, is a former editor at The Christian Pulse, and works as a writing coach for the North Texas Christian Writers. Seriously addicted to flavored coffee with just the right amount of cream and chocolate covered peanuts, she spends her days tormenting imaginary people. In her BK—before kids—life, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and worked as a social worker and a dyslexic tutor. You can find Lori hanging out on Facebook, Twitter and her website—lafreeland.com.



57 comments on “5 Tips for Cheeseless Dialogue”

  1. I once took a writing class from Simon Hawke and he talked about what he called "As you know, Dr. Frankenstein" dialogue.

    It's most common in science fiction and fantasy, but it shows up in mainstream fiction as well--when characters have conversations that exist only to explain something to the reader. For example:

    "We can't invite both Abe and Beth to the party."

    "That's right, because Abe and Beth used to be married, before Beth had an affair with Abe's mechanic."

    "And then Abe swore that he would kill Beth if he ever saw her again."

    "Yes, all this is true. So let's make sure that we don't invite both Abe and Beth to the party."

    That sort of exposition thinly disguised as dialogue drives me crazy. When people have a shared history they don't sit around talking about things that they both know. It's marginally better when one of the characters is explaining the background to another character who doesn't know it, but it still often comes across as the writer explaining things to the reader and adding quotation marks to make it look like dialogue.

  2. I used to use names in dialog all the time. Someone pointed it out to me. It sounded perfectly find in my head. Reading the dialog out loud helped pick stuff like that out for me.

    Lots of good stuff to think about here!

  3. I am going to mess things up right out of the gate by objecting to the "characters can't hiss" caveat!!! I use this verb—albeit sparingly—in situations where there is a lot of angry emotion, and a character is trying to keep his voice down. I have had a very mean mother character hiss something mean at her daughter so no one else could hear. It was the PERFECT verb for the context. 🙂 Otherwise I have to go with a description that takes too long and ruins the snappy, angry flow of the dialog.

    BUT I agree verbs like that should be used very, very sparingly, and only when other words fail.

    Thanks for the fun lesson this morning, Lori! 🙂

    1. Pssst, I have to confess... I'm with Lizzie on this, on rare occasions a good hiss just seems so right.
      (I know, I know, the books all say don't. And please don't tattle to Margie. She'll have me writing 'I will not hiss' on the blackboard a hundred times.)

  4. Wonderful post! I love this blog.

    Not to be immodest but all my critique partners say I'm a master at dialogue. I guess that's a relief since I find description painful and struggle with it. 🙂 A lot of my first drafts are just page after page of dialogue. I'm not sure why I find dialogue so easy but i like to listen to people. Okay, I admit it, I have a tendency to eavesdrop. 🙂 I sometimes even jot down things people say in my little writer notebook.

    In my in-person critique group, we read out pages aloud and I find that extremely helpful especially with dialogue. Speaking it helps with the flow and rhythm. I also have to admit to hearing voices in my head. 🙂 I can hear my characters and i replay their conversations in my head sometimes even before I put anything on paper, er, screen.

  5. Great advice, Lori.

    My favorite tip (and practice) is reading the dialog out loud. If it sounds stilted, it's cheesy.

    When I took Margie-freaking-awesome-Lawson's class on body language and dialog cues, I became so enamored with finding fresh, fresh, fresh* (channeling Margie there) ways to show body language, write unique dialog cues, I fell into a trap of wanting to find one for each line of dialog.

    I got over that. Thankfully. Dialog runs are fun to play with, too. So long as I don't let my reader get her undies knotted in a who's-speaking-now retrace for clarity. That is (as you so cleverly put it) a tire shredder.

    I've read your work, Lori. You are more than qualified to offer sage counsel on compelling, effective dialog. Great reminders!

  6. Thanks for the pointers, Lori. I have to edit out some of the names in my dialog, too. The only time you have to use the name is when it wouldn't be clear to the reader who is speaking. A guy and girl only in the scene? Easy. Use only he/she.

    It's when you get more people in a scene it gets tricky, straightening out pronouns and proper names - so they refer back to each other correctly!

    And I agree with everyone - reading out loud really helps catch stilted dialog!

  7. Some great tips on your blog, Lori. I'll ditto what others have said. The thing that helps me most is reading the dialogue aloud. Fixes so many problems that don't need to be pointed out by a cp!

  8. Great post, WITS, as always. I was almost afraid to read your post, Lori. Whew! What a relief, those were all "rules" I know and mostly follow. I confess to liking the use of a name. (see first line.) For me it makes it sound more friendly. Bu I make myself go back and yank them out. LOL Good reminders as I'm working through edits on a book.

  9. I was teaching a writing group last week and they were arguing about saying names. When I asked them how many times I'd called them by name in the last hour, they admitted zero and stopped giving me such a hard time 🙂

  10. Good post, Lori!
    So helpful for new writers I plan to tweet it.
    I also enjoy it when dialogue shows what the characters don't want to say. When they avoid answering a question, or dodge it creatively. Tricky to pull off but worth the effort.

  11. Yep to all. I'm a freelance editor and I see three of these issues all the time. The naming in dialogue and the unnecessary adj to explode dialogue tagging, and the paragraphs with the actions and dialogues of more than one character...I see this last two in traditionally published books also.

  12. That's funny about the contractions. I wrote a book with a character who was an old American Indian and I specifically made the decision that he would never use contractions (as is common for that type of character). I got feedback from a contest that suggested I use less formal speech. Duh - it was a deliberate choice I made. I guess the judge didn't "get it."

    All good points. That stuff is starting to be more automatic for me as I write, but I'm still learning.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

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