Monday, March 5, 2012

You’ll R.U.E. the Day

You’ll rue the day an agent or editor dismisses your manuscript or a reader shuts your novel because your dialogue fails to do its job. You want your dialogue to move the story forward and reveal traits of your characters. You want it to compel your reader.

Don’t take the easy way by explaining your dialogue to your reader. When you do, it lays limp on the page and pulls the reader out of the story. Step back and give your readers a chance to draw conclusions from the dialogue and the story action. Let them get involved in the story.

One thing to keep in the back of your mind while you write is to Resist the Urge to Explain (R.U.E.). Stick with the tried and true “said” attributes to clarify which character is speaking. They work like a punctuation mark, blending into the sentence. Most of the time, readers move right over it. For example,

“It costs too much,” Jenna said.

The next thing you want to avoid is the dreaded –ly words.

“It costs too much,” Jenna said angrily. 

The minute the adverb “angrily” enters the scene, your reader stops. They’re being told how Jenna feels, but they can’t feel it themselves. So, they dig into their imagination or use their personal reactions to animate the scene in their head. Since they have to fill in Jenna’s personality traits, the character never comes alive on the page. Lifeless characters and constant pauses stall the narrative flow, making it hard for the reader to get back into the story.

Keep your reader hooked by using sympathy and empathy to connect the reader to your characters. Your readers don’t need to know, they need to FEEL! Invest the reader into your story by giving them all the information they need to see the scene without telling them anything. Instead of saying how the character feels, show the reader how the character feels through action and reaction.

“It costs too much,” Jenna said angrily. 


“It costs too much.” Jenna slammed her hand on the kitchen table.

You can now see Jenna’s angry when she slams her hand on the table, rather than being told she was angry. Diction and body language strengthen the dialogue scene, bringing it alive so the reader is immersed in the story. They get to know Jenna and experience the scene as if they’re standing right there in the kitchen with her.

When you use the physical action to describe how a character feels during the dialogue scene and clarifies the speaker, it’s called a dialogue beat. Dialogue beats really help a reader envision the scene.  

Keep in mind the use of “said” is almost always the best way to distinguish between who is speaking in a dialogue scene. You can also infuse the scene with dialogue beats for better illustration. But don’t get too carried away. Remember balance. Too many attributes or dialogue beats can pull the reader out of the scene, too.

Now, until you’ve toned your mental muscles, taking the easy way out in the first draft is ok. But when you go back in to make revisions, push yourself and your diction to find a more succinct and powerful way to convey your characters’ emotion.

What guidelines do you follow to create compelling dialogue?

Share a snippet of your favorite dialogue from a novel or your own writing.

Browne, Renni and King, Dave. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print.   Harper, 2004: New York.


  1. Fascinating. That was really interesting. I'd never heard the term "dialogue beats." Nice. I learn something new every day. =^)

    Dialogue is REALLY hard for me because somewhere along the way I've decided that it's really...not an afterthought another layer of the story. Mostly because people in real life talk in non sequitirs(sp?) a lot. Also because when people in real life speak, at least those in close relationship, there's a lot of backstory already there which they would never explain to each other in any objective way. So if you're on the outside looking in, the dialogue might make NO sense and yet still be quite real.

    Does that make sense?

    In any case, I try to write dialogue from that outside-in perspective because to me it seems more real and because what isn't explained will hopefully hold the reader's interest long enough to get to the explanation.

    Sorry I don't have any great samples of dialogue. I'm too dog on tired to find one, lol

    Great post though!

    1. I totally agree, dialogue isn't an afterthought. I struggle with it, that's why I choose the topic. Dialogue, along with everything else in a novel, should propel the story forward. It should reveal information about the characters, setting, and plot.

      The skill to make it believable without explaining backstory is difficult. You totally hit nail on the head. Waiting to explain backstory or inside jokes can definitely hook a reader's attention. You want to give your reader a reason to keep reading.

      Thanks for stopping by!