Today we welcome Lori Freeland to WITS for the first time! Welcome Lori!
Like a Lactose Intolerant prefers his pizza minus the gut-churning cheese, I want my dialogue devoid of dairy.
Have you ever heard agents or editors say they flip to the first section of dialogue and if it’s cheesy, they don’t bother with the read?
Here are five signs of cheesy dialogue.
I’ve used generic NO and YES examples below and put them in italics to distinguish from my comments.
Unless English is your second language, or your character has passed the age of eighty, almost everyone uses contractions when they speak.
NO: “We are hitting the club tonight. What is up with you not wanting to dance anymore?”
YES: “We’re hitting the club tonight. What’s up with you not wanting to dance anymore?”
Contractions make speech natural and help dialogue flow.
2. Name Calling.
How many times do we actually say someone’s name in a conversation? Unless I’m trying to get your attention in a crowd, I’m betting rarely to never. Pay attention to your verbal interchanges and count how many times you say someone’s name in real life.
NO: “Well, Jennifer, I didn’t like his attitude.”
“Too bad, Lisa. He’s your new partner.”
YES: “I didn’t like his attitude.”
“Too bad. He’s your new partner.”
Sticking in names is a major pace-killer in any dialogue unless you’re trying to make an important point or one of your character’s idiosyncrasies is name-calling. By the way, name-calling from a psychological standpoint shows inferiority. The person doing the naming feels “less than” the other person and is grappling for the advantage. Great tip to remember in a power struggle conversation.
3. Improper Punctuation.
When you use a dialogue tag like “said” use a comma.
NO: “Not gonna happen.” He said.
YES: “Not gonna happen,” he said.
When you use an action beat to tag the speaker, use a period.
NO: “Not gonna happen,” he slammed the mug on the desk and stomped from the office.
YES: “Not gonna happen.” He slammed the mug on the desk and stomped from the office.
Notice how adding the action tells the reader how the dialogue is spoken? He’s angry. And now we see the anger.
4. Speaking of Tags.
Said, asked, and sometimes whispered are invisible tags. Your reader will skim over them. In this case, skimming is a good thing. The tags identify the speaker and don’t mess with the tempo.
Using any other tag is a speed bump. Using any other tag plus an “ly” adverb? That’s a tire-shredder.
NO: “I’m out of here,” she hissed.
Contrary to popular belief, people can’t actually hiss words. Unless they’re part-snake or a character from Harry Potter.
NO: “I’m out of here,” she said angrily.
YES: “I’m out of here,” she said.
YES: “I’m out of here.” She whirled in her red heels and clicked out the door.
The best one? The action showing her anger.
5. Who Said What?
Paragraph and tag properly.
If Character A is speaking, he needs his own paragraph. That way, when Character B responds, in her own paragraph, we can follow their back-and-forth exchange of wit like a game of Championship Ping Pong.
Each player (speaker) has their own side of the table (paragraph) with the proper space (white space between paragraphs) keeping them separate.
In a quick back-and-forth, you don’t need to tag every sentence. Unless there are more than two characters speaking. Then your dialogue gets trickier.
NO: “That movie sent chills to places chills don’t belong.” Amber shuddered. “I know, right?” Leah pretended to agree. What would Amber say if she knew the truth?
YES: “That movie sent chills to places chills don’t belong.” Amber shuddered.
“I know, right?” Leah pretended to agree. What would Amber say if she knew the truth?
Stuck together, the dialogue becomes a puzzle with the wrong pieces jammed together. Separated, the conversation becomes clear.
NO: “What did you think was gonna happen? “ He held up his fingers, his face contorted in what looked like major disgust. Just watching those hands drove me wild. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
YES: “What did you think was gonna happen? “ He held up his fingers, his face contorted in what looked like major disgust.
Just watching those hands drove me wild. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
In the NO above, we’re not sure which words and thoughts belong with each speaker. Paragraphed out, the conversation leaves no confusion.
Cheesy dialogue is one-hundred-percent avoidable. Get in the habit of writing for pace. Include fragments. Read your dialogue out loud. Have someone else read your dialogue out loud.
The art of conversation is just that—an art. It’s part of the craft like anything else. Being aware of which of the five signs of cheese above marks your weakness can change the entire way you write dialogue in the future.
Is dialog hard for you? If not, do you have any other tips for us?
Lori Freeland is a Young Adult author who lives in the Dallas Area. She has a short story out in the YA volume of Wild at Heart, has published numerous articles with various e-zines, is a former editor at The Christian Pulse, and works as a writing coach for the North Texas Christian Writers. Seriously addicted to flavored coffee with just the right amount of cream and chocolate covered peanuts, she spends her days tormenting imaginary people. In her BK—before kids—life, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and worked as a social worker and a dyslexic tutor. You can find Lori hanging out on Facebook, Twitter and her website—lafreeland.com.