Well-written, compelling, engaging dialogue moves the plot forward and brings your characters to life.
We all know that the reading becomes faster and the pace quicker when there’s a lot of dialogue in a novel. However, like anything else, balance is the key. A novel with lines of dialogue after dialogue, page after page, without any narration, action or description in between, will get your book rejected. The same will happen if you have page after page with no dialogue at all. So, chances are agents and editors may dismiss your manuscript just by looking at the first few pages, even without having read them.
Here are 8 tips to help you stay away from amateurish dialogue:
- Be economic with your speech tags (also known as identifiers or attributes). If you have two characters talking, you don’t need to say “he said” and “she said” each time there’s a new line of dialogue. Likewise, be sure you have some tags for rhythm, pacing and clarity—you don’t want your dialogue to be hard to follow either.
- Don’t be too creative with your speech tags. Speech tags should be ‘silent’, meaning they shouldn’t distract the reader. Stick to the common ‘said,’ and ‘asked’ for the most part. This doesn’t mean you can’t replace ‘said’ with verbs like yelled, cried, muttered, mumbled, groaned, whispered, etc., but do so sparingly and only when necessary.
- Avoid spitfire dialogue. This happens when you have two characters or more talking one after the other without any pauses or action in between, so that the conversation looks like a tennis match or reads like a screenplay.
- Don’t interrupt dialogue unnecessarily. This happens when you have an interesting exchange of dialogue and suddenly interrupt it with an unnecessary paragraph of exposition or description. This makes readers impatient and prompts them to skip ahead to get to the good stuff.
- Let the characters talk—don’t paraphrase them. Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages, calls this ‘journalistic dialogue.’ Don’t quote your characters. Let their dialogue flow in complete sentences instead.
- Stay away from exclamation marks! (No pun intended). An editor once told me, “Only one ‘!’ per each hundred pages.” No kidding. Dialogue filled with exclamation marks is an instant sign of an amateur. Readers don’t like to be shouted at, and that’s what it feels like when there are many exclamation marks in a story.
- Avoid commonplace dialogue. (“Hi. How are you?” she said. “Fine. How are you?” he responded.) Remember that each line of dialogue must have a purpose in your story. This type of dialogue can only work if your aim is to portray your characters as boring and unimaginative. Yes, we talk like this in real life, but that doesn’t mean you should include it in your novel. Cut the ‘realistic,’ everyday dialogue and leave the rest.
- Avoid fake dialogue. One of the surest ways for a dialogue to sound fake is when it’s used to convey information that should be presented in a more subtle or indirect manner. Obviously you can use dialogue to give reader new information, but it takes skill to do it right. It takes subtlety. As Lukeman states, “[Fake dialogue] is dialogue that characters would never use in real life, interchanges that are not artistically real, that don’t spring from characters’ needs, desires and relationships. Instead, this is dialogue imposed on them by the writer.” That’s the key word: imposed. You want your dialogue to sound genuine, natural and spontaneous. He goes on to say that “The most common malady is use of dialogue to convey backstory. The solution is to follow this rule: Dialogue should not be used to state things both characters already know, that is, one character should not remind the other character of something. This is an obvious ploy, intended only for the reader.”
Keep these tips in mind and you’ll be able to write better dialogue and spot mistakes when you revise your own stories or someone else’s.
By Mayra Calvani
At a trendy Turkish tavern one Friday night, astrophysicist Gabriel Diaz meets a mysterious young woman. Captivated by her beauty as well as her views on good and evil, he spends the next several days with her. Soon, however, he begins to notice a strangeness in her–her skin’s abnormally high temperature, her obsession with milk products, her child-like and bizarre behavior as she seems to take pleasure in toying with his conscience.
The young woman, Kamilah, invites him to Rize, Turkey, where she claims her family owns a cottage in the woods. In spite of his heavy workload and the disturbing visions and nightmares about his sister’s baby that is due to be born soon, Gabriel agrees to go with her.
But nothing, not even the stunning splendor of the Black Sea, can disguise the horror of her nature. In a place where death dwells and illusion and reality seem as one, Gabriel must now come to terms with his own demons in order to save his sister’s unborn child, and ultimately, his own soul…
*Dream Realm Awards Finalist!
What readers are saying…
“Mayra Calvani is a masterful storyteller… Dark Lullaby is complex and compelling…” –Habitual Reader
“Dark Lullaby is an atmospheric paranormal horror that grips you from page one and refuses to let go until you’ve raced, breathless, to the end.” –ePinions
“Dark Lullaby is a page-turner. A horror story from the top shelf! You’ll love it.” –5 stars from Euro-Reviews
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“Dark Lullaby will capture you with its rich descriptions, its exotic location, and the need to uncover the dark secrets hidden within its pages.” –Cheryl Malandrinos, The Book Connection
Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. A reviewer for over a decade, she now offers online reviewing workshops. When she’s not writing, reading, editing or reviewing, she enjoys walking her dog, traveling, and spending time with her family.
Visit her website at www.MayraCalvani.com. Join her mailing list and receive the first two lessons of her book reviewing workshop, as well as her free ebook, Reviewers Talk About Their Craft.
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