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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Five Dialogue Dilemmas to Avoid

by Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL

Not long ago, I read a self-published novel that drove me crazy. I enjoyed the story and liked the characters, but the author made several mistakes with her dialogue, again and again and again. It didn’t happen every time she wrote dialogue, so she did know what she was doing. Just chalk it up to sloppy proofreading (and the lack of a copy editor).

The mistakes were inexcusable, but they are a good reminder to scour your manuscript to ensure they don’t exist. Some of them are easily missed if you are not paying attention.

1. “I’m hungry.” She whispered.

The question I’m wondering after reading this is what did the character whisper? The author incorrectly punctuated the dialogue. It should have read: “I’m hungry,” she whispered.

2. “I’m hungry,” she frowned.

Frowning is a physical action. It doesn’t describe how the dialogue was spoken. Again, this is a case of incorrect punctuation. The correct ways to write it would be:

“I’m hungry,” she said, frowning.


“I’m hungry.” She frowned.

In the first sentence, the character is frowning at the same time as she spoke. In the second situation, the character spoke then frowned. You can’t laugh, frown, smack, or wink dialogue. You can yell and whisper dialogue. You can say dialogue with a laugh (“I’m hungry,” she said with a laugh). And you can say dialogue low so that no one else can hear you. Whenever you use a dialogue tag that isn’t said, make sure it really is a dialogue tag and not a physical beat.

3. “Fine.” I spat, jumping up.

When I first read the sentence, I wondered if the character had spat at the other character or if she had spat at the ground. Again, this is example of improper punctuation. The above sentence means something different to what the author had intended: “Fine,” I spat, jumping up.

4. “I’m losing!?!”

The above abuse of punctuation is fine for comics, text messages, and blog comments. It is not appropriate in dialogue. In the above example, the author would use the question mark and show (not tell) that the character is surprised that she’s losing.

5. “I’m not sure that’s—“

The second quotation mark is backwards. The easiest way to avoid this is type a random letter after the dash-em and then the quotation mark. The correct form will appear. Delete the letter and you’re golden.

To avoid missing these errors in your manuscript when you edit, go through the draft once, reading only for dialogue and dialogue tags. This way, you will be more likely to catch the errors than if you are paying attention to a different element, and hoping to notice your typos. If you read the first three chapters and find you are frequently making these mistakes, you can guarantee the rest of the story is riddled with them, too.

Are there any errors in dialogue mechanics that you’ve seen that drive you crazy or that you struggle with?

Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL writes young adult and new adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and can be found hanging out on her blog


PK HREZO said...

Oh these are a bother for sure. Not to non-writers probably, but as a writer I'm very anal about them. And you bring up a good point--if we're going to self-pub we should make sure it's up to par with trad editing, or else it gives other self-pubbers a bad name.

Christine Danek said...

Number 5 is my enemy. Thanks for the tip. I always wondered how to fix it. I will now go back and fix. Thanks.

Suzanne Pitner said...

These may seem to be tiny mistakes to some, but when I'm reading and I see them, it's enough to make me put the book down. It makes me think the author rushed it to publication without giving enough time to have it professionally edited. Thanks for writing these pointers.

Teri Anne Stanley said...

I'm with Christine on the number 5 issue.
I'm sure my editor and agent and beta readers and crit partners might point out that the other four crop up now and again (and again).
Yet another reason that I will not be self-publishing any time in the near future!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Excellent post, Stina.

Unknown said...

Great post, Stina. As an English teacher, seeing a book full of these would just make me think that they should have taken more time before publishing.

Marsha Sigman said...

I am now slinking off to double check all of these in current ms.

Thank you!

Unknown said...

One of my biggest pet peeves with dialogue is over-identifying the person being spoken to. "That's just stupid, Jamie." I've been very guilty of this in the past, which is part of why it bugs me.

Stéphanie Noël said...

Great post. As English is not my native language I always hesitate when it comes to punctuation, mixing it with French punctuation.

The Lady Okie said...

Great tips! These annoy me too. I see a lot of misused dialogue tags these days.