How to Use Dialogue Correctly: Part 2

One of my most popular posts has been a guide to how to use dialogue correctly. I’m glad this preliminary guide has been useful for students and writers alike as they quest after realistic dialogue in their fiction. I want to add to those original tips with some more discussion about what makes dialogue realistic, vivid, and story-based.

1. Punctuate your dialogue correctly.

I see my own students really struggling with the ins and outs of punctuation with dialogue, so let me try to clarify some of the conventions we use. First, dialogue is always punctuated. If someone is speaking, we never just leave the words hanging out there without any punctuation at all; it looks as unfinished and kind of purposeless as a text message without correct punctuation.

The wrong way:

“That’s a good idea” said John.
“I know” said Jane.

The right way:

“That’s a good idea,” said John.
“I know!” said Jane.

There are many ways to punctuate dialogue, depending on the mood and rhythm of speech you’re trying to capture, but no punctuation is never an option.

2. Avoid pointless back and forth.

Here’s a stylistic suggestion: even if you are rendering your dialogue correctly, it doesn’t mean it’s necessary or is moving the story forward. Beginning writers often use dialogue to repeat what has already been established in the exposition, or as a “reaction time” that doesn’t further the story. You might establish that one person is cheating on the other. Then we have a scene of real-time dialogue, in which everyone is reacting to the cheating. But that doesn’t actually move the story forward; it’s just a re-hashing of what we already know. A story that uses truly masterful dialogue lets story happen in the course of a conversation. We learn new betrayals or reveal more about character while the talk is going on.

The wrong way:

Jane discovers that John is cheating on her. She is surprised, hurt, upset, and devastated. She weeps.
When John comes home, she howls, “You cheated on me! I’m so surprised! I’m so hurt! I’m so devastated!”

The right way:

Jane discovers that John is cheating on her. She is surprised, hurt, upset, and devastated. She weeps.
When John comes home and she confronts him, John is silent at first. “But I only cheated because I thought you had cheated on me years ago,” he says finally.

3. Avoid exposition in dialogue.

This is one of the most common dialogue mistakes I see beginning writers making — and it’s also one of the clumsiest, instantly revealing your work as unpolished. Readers can spot this a mile away and it makes your entire authorial voice seem fake and contrived. In dialogue, characters can only say what they realistically would say to each other — that is, they can only share information that one of them doesn’t know yet. It’s tremendously artificial to try to give background information in dialogue that both characters would have known already.

The wrong way:

“Lisa, you’re eighteen now, and I’m your older brother,” said John. “So when Mom and Dad died last year, I felt responsible for you.”

The right way:

“When Mom and Dad died, I felt like I was responsible for you,” said John. He was her older brother.

So what do you think are the most egregious errors being made in dialogue these days? Is dialogue knowledge getting better or worse among writers? And do you have any tips to share for realistic dialogue in the comments?

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