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Avoid confusing dialogue

Posted by Maria Murnane | September 18, 2012

In a blog post last year, I discussed how first-time novelists tend to create characters who sound the same, which can make it hard for the reader to know who’s talking. Today, I want to address a few other dialogue mistakes:

  • Having more than one character speak in a single paragraph
  • Putting a beat in from someone who isn’t speaking in that paragraph
  • Putting in a beat at the end of one paragraph and starting the next paragraph with the related dialogue

I just finished reading two books, one self-published and one published traditionally. Both authors committed the above offenses so often that I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who was saying what. It was incredibly annoying, and it often kept me from focusing on the story. Here’s an example from each, with a few words changed to protect the guilty:

From the self-published book:

“Karen, I’ve been waiting up for you all night. Where were you?” Brian asked. Karen looked at him.

“Do you know how old I am?” To Brian, it was a strange question.

“Old enough to know it’s not your place to ask.” Brian put his hands by his side. “What do you have to say to that?”

“Nothing,” he mumbled.

***

ME: What? I am not sure who is saying what here.

***

From the traditionally published book:

“To be honest, things have been pretty good with him,” I said. “Except when he acted like a jerk at that wedding we went to last weekend. And I feel all guilty for that, like it was my fault.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Becky said. “And he shouldn’t make you feel that way.” I shot a look at her. She held up her hands in surrender. “Okay, I admit it, I’m impressed. He’s been spending every weekend with you. Even I wouldn’t do that.” I made a face at her.

“I know, he’s been great.”

***

ME: Again, what? Who exactly is talking here?

You don't want your readers to feel like this

If you want to keep your dialogue clear, make it obvious who is speaking. A good professional editor should be able to catch these sorts of things to make your book more readable.

-Maria

This blog post originally appeared on CreateSpace.com. Reprinted with permission. © 2012 CreateSpace, a DBA of On-Demand Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.

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