Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Worst Advice Ever About Writing Dialog

Lots of articles and writing books teach how to more effectively create dialog that just "sings" to readers. But enough about that. Let's look at the flip side of that. What's the worst advice you've ever received about how to write dialog? And did you take? How did you learn just how wrong it was?

Desmond Reddick: To listen to how people REALLY talk and mimic it. Ugh. That would create unreadable nonsense. Ha! I think the trick is more to approximate real dialogue but rather boiling it down to its purest, most plot-driving core while still leaving room for characterization and distinction.

Robbie Hilliard: Tagless dialogue. Sure, it has its place, but I once ran into a writing group that uniformly insisted that all dialogue tags must go! How insane is that? You know, the 'he said' and 'she said' speech attribution tags? Yeah, well I think there are times when they are just fine. They can help give the reader a hint at the pacing of 'spoken word' in the story. Just like you don't want to twist sentences due to grammar rules to the point that they don't sound natural (e.g. "Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put."), you don't want to find yourself creating dialogue that is twisted and unnatural just so your reader will clearly know who is speaking. Sometimes a 'he said/she said' is exactly what you need in order to preserve the natural flow of the dialogue.

So when to strive for tagless dialogue? When the scene is close, the tension is high, and the action is tight and flying by so fast you don't want the reader to have to slow down for anything. That's a great time for tagless dialogue!

C.E. Martin: Oh, I am all over this one... Back in 2012, when I started my first Kindle Direct book, I read a lot of advice from authors at They were blasting the use of dialogue descriptors, like "Stay back" he growled. They claimed "Said" was always better.

Even though it went against my grain, I went ahead and followed the advice. By my second book, I decided that was stupid, and went back to trying to avoid having "said" appear twenty times on a page. I think "said" takes a reader out of the story when used more than once a page.

I also don't like that Hemingway-way of never identifying who is talking. Sure, if it's two people in a scene, then yes, your readers should be able to tell who is who, but in a crowded room, you need to spell out who's who.

Gordon Dymowski: Worst advice: try to capture a local dialect by spelling. Tried it in one of my stories, and rereading it....hoo, boy, was it bad.

Now, I tend to write dialogue the same way that Tommy Lee Jones once described his method for scripts - people tend to talk in sentence fragments. So I tend to write very fragmented, lyrical dialogue. (Plus, best advice - listen to *how* people people. Find rhythms)

Paul Mannering: Dialog should speak directly - people talk shit in real life. We hesitate, mumble, stumble over words, say things in a round about way. Listening to most people talk is like listening to Donald Trump -- it's bizarre.

In a story -- off the cuff comments should sound like they were carefully thought out - because they were - but they make your characters look cool.

Avoid dialect and specific slang -- it never reads well.

D. Alan Lewis: I was once told in a critique group that we all speak English and we talk the same. So, write your dialogue that way. Don't try and make everyone sound unique because it will confuse the reader. I didn't follow his advice.

Richard L. Altstatt: Most words are monkey noises. Ignore them...or, learn to spell....other good advice.

PJ Lozito: Potential agent: "No, don't set STING OF THE SILVER MANTICORE in 1942. World War II would make the events in it sort of a side show...." forgetting there were plenty of novels and stories happening during WWII.