3 Quick Tips To Fix Common Dialog Mistakes

A Quick Dialog Exercise

Periodically, I take an example from my critique group, change the names of the characters to avoid making the author uncomfortable, and use it as a demonstration of stuff we don’t see ourselves that others might. Here is an example of something I have accidentally done a LOT of, and how to correct it.

Read the following short passage. (The girlfriend has been watching her boyfriend dance while he cooked, and then they sit down to dinner.)

.

“So apart from skiving off today, how’s uni going?”

“It feels like a huge backward step. I’d prefer to be back at work.” She poured two glasses of water. “Have you won any more contracts?”

“I have actually. Remember the urgent sample screenshots you pulled together just before you left?”

She surprised herself at being able to remember anything about those last few weeks. “Was it that catalogue store interface bid?”

“That’s the one. They loved your idea for the drag and drop animations, and the contracts were signed off yesterday. Best of all, I get to manage the project from start to finish.”

She frowned. “I thought you did that anyway?”

“Not for high priority projects. Janet normally deals with them, but she’s got too much on. Business is booming, so you need to hurry up and finish uni. I need my bright-spark back.”

She blushed. “You’re clearly after something!”

.

First, we have a nice mix of actions and beats, but did you notice something a little… off? In the story we already know their names, but there are a lot of she’s and not a lot of he’s. Okay, that’s minor, but easily fixed. But it’s unlikely the author would catch that himself; he knows who they are. A critique partner (CP) or beta reader might flag that for you.

TIP #1: use a name once in a while, or at least let BOTH characters be identified somehow every so often. And not with “He said,” either. Be creative.

Let’s go over the story again, breaking it down. The original story text is in plain font, and my comments are in bold:

“It feels like a huge backward step. I’d prefer to be back at work.” She poured two glasses of water. “Have you won any more contracts?”

 You’re doing/about to do a little of what I did in The Water Castle’s first draft – occasional story segments with lots of short, declarative sentences that border on repetitious. As a CP friend once said, repetition borders on boring (and un-immerses the reader from the story) so we need to watch it.

She poured

is one; and coming up next:

She surprised
She frowned
She blushed
He wasn’t
She slipped

Look back up at the original story. See? Readers may not notice it per se, but as they read they unconsciously can’t help but NOT enjoy the story as much as if we’d changed a few of these. Here’s an easy way to do it.

TIP #2: Leave 1/3 as is, take 1/3 and “reverse them,” and rewrite 1/3. It will break it all up enough for readers to not notice – and remember, I’ve done it, too. It’s easily fixed. Then, as you go over it again later (when your eyes are fresh), add in whatever else you see it needs. But this is a decent band aid.

 “I have actually. Remember the urgent sample screenshots you pulled together just before you left?”

She surprised herself at being able to remember anything about those last few weeks. “Was it that catalogue store interface bid?”

An example of a reversal: just put the verb first or ANYTHING other than she, if that’s how you started the last one.

She surprised herself at being able to remember anything about those last few weeks…

becomes

Surprising herself at being able to remember anything about those last few weeks, she put her hands on her hips and glared at him…

– or whatever action is appropriate for the scene and tone. Scrunched up her mouth and put a finger to her lip. Whatever best shows how she’s feeling about this.

 “That’s the one. They loved your idea for the drag and drop animations, and the contracts were signed off yesterday. Best of all, I get to manage the project from start to finish.”

She frowned. “I thought you did that anyway?”

And then rewrite this one a different way that says the same thing.


“I thought you did that anyway.” It was as likely as not he did. “Didn’t you?”

Eliminates the she but gives us an inner thought and breaks up the pattern

These are just examples (and not really very good ones) but after a while you’ll see them yourself – and maybe see them as you are writing them.

If it’s a first draft, don’t worry, just get it out there and ask the CPs to flag them if they see them. That will make them know you’re aware and they’ll make it easier for you to fix. Don’t be shy about asking them for a replacement line, either.

“Not for high priority projects. Janet normally deals with them, but she’s got too much on. Business is booming, so you need to hurry up and finish uni. I need my bright-spark back.”

She blushed. “You’re clearly after something!”

.

You can see that the original story was pretty much fine, but the sentence patterns are now something you’re aware of. If a reader sees that in your book, they will be annoyed by it. Who needs that in a story?

TIP #3: A fresh pairs of eyes – somebody else’s, preferably – can make all the difference.

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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Click HERE to check out his other works.

28 thoughts on “3 Quick Tips To Fix Common Dialog Mistakes

    • We all do these things. I tried to express in the post that I did this a lot myself, but that critique partners – like you – point it out to me and help me fix it to create a much smoother reading story. Cos you guys rock.

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