Dialogue Traps

by James Thayer

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2008

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2008

Writing dialogue should be easy, shouldn’t it?  In our lives we talk all day and we listen all day.  Friends, family, co-workers, the radio.  Blah, blah, blah, an endless torrent of conversation, so it figures we should instinctively know how to write dialogue in our fiction.  Easy peasy lemon squeezy. 

Wait.  Good dialogue isn’t just talk.  It isn’t a transcript.  Compelling conversations in fiction have little to do with real-life chat.  Here are common mistakes made when writing dialogue.  

Not enough arguments.   The most riveting conversations in fiction are arguments.  Ever noticed that?  Think back on the novels you have read, on the punchy, entertaining dialogue.  Most of the dialogue you recall will be arguments between the characters.   

That’s one of the reasons novels often feature the protagonist and buddy who grate on each other.  They argue and bicker and use each other as foils for sarcasm and jokes.  This give and take is much more enjoyable for the reader than two characters who agree with each other all the time, and who are consistently considerate and understanding of each other.  A verbal altercation is more entertaining than flattery.  An accusation is more gripping than an expression of gratitude.   

But conversation in novels can’t be all arguments,so dialogue that is not argumentative should be dealt with in one of two ways. First, make it short.  When characters are agreeing with each other, or billing and cooing, or setting out plans in an affable manner, don’t have your characters talk at length.  Second, give the conversation in summary form rather than in real-time back-and-forth dialogue. “Peggy told John about finding the lost dog” is a summary of dialogue, rather than dialogue. 

Avoid the information dump:  Dialogue that floods the reader with information and sounds like a college lecture is called the Information Dump.  It stops the story’s forward momentum with facts that usually aren’t as interesting to the reader as they are to the writer.  Here’s an example of an information dump.  Listen to how out out-of-place it is: 

Gillie lowered the backpack of explosives to the ground.  Cork had darkened his face, and his winter field uniform blended with the snow.  His Sten gun was strapped to his belly.  “How much farther, Lieutenant?” 

“Quarter mile.  I can already hear the water from the spillway.” 

Gillie glanced at his watch. “The diversion will begin in fifteen minutes.  We going to make it?”

Ten Sten gun clips hung from the lieutenant’s belt.  “They didn’t hire us to be late, Gillie.  Let’s go.” 

“You sure this dam is worth it, Lieutenant?  I mean, you and me, we’re going to have the dogs on us, and half the Wehrmacht in Saxony.” 

“It’s worth it.  As you know, the Keibler Dam was built in 1915 to prevent seasonal flooding on the Wilhelm River, thereby opening up 40,000 acres to agriculture.  Other benefits include the twenty-mile irrigation channel that delivers water to orchards and grain fields in lower Saxony, and the two twenty-thousand watt electric generators that provides electricity to six thousand residences.  The dam cost four million German marks, and employed 3,000 workers during its construction.”

“Well, hell, Lieutenant, I guess it is worth all this trouble, after all.” 

No small talk:  Small-talk is a part of everyday life.  It’s a social lubricant. But in fiction, nobody wants to read small-talk.  When we meet with someone in real life, the conversation goes like this: 

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing.  You?”

“Nothing.  The weather could be better.”

“Yeah, I left my car window open last night.”

“Yeah, I’ve done that before.”

“I dried off the seats with a towel.  It’s okay now.  Didn’t get anything important wet.” 

Is this of any interest to anyone?  Not in a novel.  Similarly, we end our real conversations with something like: 

“I’m going to go get a coffee.  Want to come?”

“Sure, but I need to use the bathroom first.”

“It’s on the first floor.  I passed it coming in.  Right near the Auntie Annie’s.”

“I’ll see you in a couple minutes.”

“You want me to order you anything?”

“Uh . . . yeah, a mint mocha.  Thanks.  See you in a bit.”

“Whipping cream on it?”

“Yeah, thanks.  Meet you at the coffee place.” 

This is how the real conversations work, but it isn’t how good fiction works, because small talk is duller than a plank.  Instead, the reader should have the sense that she has dropped into the conversation.  The reader has picked it up mid-course, after all the preliminary chat is over.  The first line of dialogue in this scene should be something like, “Did you bring the money?”

Don’t directly answer questions:  In real conversations most people try to answer your question, and then explain or clarify or add something interesting.  So the conversation between John and Dan in real life sounds like this:

“Did you bring the bag?” John asked.

“Yeah.  It’s in the car.”

“Did she give you any trouble?”

“No.  She was too afraid,” Dan said.

“Were you followed here?” John asked.

“No.  I made a lot of cut-backs and quick turns.” 

Instead, in fiction this should read like this:   

“Did you bring the bag?” John asked.

“It’s in the car.”

“Did she give you any trouble?”

“She was too afraid,” Dan said.

“Were you followed here?” John asked.

“I made a lot of cut-backs and quick turns.” 

Notice how much smoother the second version is?  And even though the yes and no have been deleted, the reader still knows the character’s answers to the questions.  

Don’t use too many dialogue tags.  A dialogue tags is he said or she asked or John said, as in, ‘“I can’t drive a stick shift,” John said.”  Not every line of dialogue needs a dialogue tag because the identity of the speaker is known to the reader due to the back and forth of the dialogue.  With too many dialogue tags, the dialogue sounds bumpy: 

“I can’t drive a stick shift,” John said.

”Didn’t you learn to drive in high school?” Amy asked.

“My parents had an automatic,” John said.

“So what are you going to do?” Amy asked. 

“Maybe I should ask Mr. Jones to teach me,” John said.

“He drives a BMW,” Amy said.  “Maybe he’s never driven a stick.”

John said, “He grew up on a farm.  I’m sure the trucks there had stick shifts.”

“Go ahead and asked him for help,” Amy said. 

See how this John said, Amy said, John said, Amy said begins to sound like a metronome, and is distracting? 

Here is the same conversation without all the dialogue tags.  Note that the identity of the speaker (John or Amy) is clear from the back and forth nature of the dialogue. 

“I can’t drive a stick shift,” John said.

”Didn’t you learn to drive in high school?” Amy asked.

“My parents had an automatic.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Maybe I should ask Mr. Jones to teach me,” John said.

“He drives a BMW. Maybe he’s never driven a stick.”

“He grew up on a farm.  I’m sure the trucks there had stick shifts.”

“Go ahead and asked him for help,” Amy said. 

A couple of dialogue tags tell the reader who is speaking but not every line has a tag. 

Don’t modify said.  Almost all of the time, the word said—as in the dialogue tag Margaret said—should not be modified with an adverb.  So Margaret said is usually better than Margaret said obligingly or Margaret said happily or Margaret said sarcastically.  The reason is that the adverb (obligingly, happily, sarcastically) usually becomes redundant because the words Margaret spoke are in fact obliging or happy or sarcastic.  So in “Margaret said happily, “This is so much fun,”’ the happily is redundant.  The character’s words speak for themselves.  ‘“Help me, I’m drowning,” Mary yelled frantically.”   There’s no need to tell the reader her words are frantic because we well know they are frantic.  

 “‘I love you,’ she said endearingly,”  or ‘“Mom, I got an A on my geography test,’ Bobby said excitedly.”  These saidmodifiers sound pasted-on.  They weaken rather than strengthen the dialogue, and they don’t add anything the reader doesn’t already know.  They should rarely be used.


James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008.  He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).

James ThayerComment