Dialog Formatting-a-occus, Dialog Tag-a-tosis, and Talking-Head- itis

These are three diseases that infect many potentially good works, and it all comes down to education. I’ve been amazed at the number of writers who don’t understand how to format dialog, use too many dialog tags, and engage in talking heads.

Underpaid Editor grabbed the blender.
“Margaritas for everyone!” she shouted excitedly.

Overworked Intern tossed the slush pile into the air.
“Whoopie doo!” she screamed elatedly.

While I’m a sucker for a good margarita (and I do make the best in the world), this is a case of incorrect formatting. I just finished reading a submission where the writer had formatted every bit of her dialog in this manner. I was constantly confused as to who was doing the talking; and no, it wasn’t because of the margaritas.

I have a lot of people asking me how to know when to keep the sentences as one paragraph. Simple. You have a lead-in sentence and the dialog. The lead-in sentence matches the character’s action with the upcoming dialog, so it belongs in the same paragraph.

first sentence:
Underpaid Editor grabbed the blender. “Margaritas for everyone!” she shouted excitedly.

Overworked Intern tossed the slush pile into the air. “Whoopie doo!” she screamed elatedly.

The second offense in this example is the dialog tags. Writers rely on them to convey emotion, and this puts the stress on the tag and takes away from the actual dialog. Put the emotion into the lead-in sentence.

Dialog tags should be kept to a minimum because they tend to have a clunking sound after a while. There are so many better ways to reference multiple characters – hello lead-in sentence. They are so underutilized, and the results are dull, flat reading. Use your lead-in sentence to convey movement or facial expressions – anything that will add dimension to the characters – and get rid of the dialog tag.

Underpaid Editor grabbed the blender. “Margaritas for everyone!” she shouted excitedly.
Overworked Intern tossed the slush pile into the air. “Whoopie doo!” she screamed elatedly.

Now becomes:

Underpaid Editor ended her long and stressful week by grabbing the blender she kept stashed in the bottom drawer of her desk. “Margaritas for everyone!”

Overworked Intern tossed the slush pile into the air and jumped with excitement. “Whoopie doo!”

The third offense is the Talking Heads. That’s a case where there is nothing going on but dialog. This is fine if done in small doses, as it is here. But have this going on for a page, and you want to scream. Or drink. It’s all about flow. Besides, you’re missing a great chance to add flavor to this dialog.

Are there any of those little umbrellas we can put in the glasses?”
“You said you’d bring them.”
“I thought Underworked CEO was going to get them.”
“No way. He took all the petty cash to buy water balloons to throw at the UPS guy.”

Now becomes:

Overworked Intern watched her boss pull out the tequila, limeade, and ice. “Are there any of those little umbrellas we can put in the glasses?”
Underpaid Editor had to speak over the loud whir of the blender. “You said you’d bring them.”
“I thought Underworked CEO was going to get them.” Overworked Intern’s face fell in disappointment.
“No way. He took all the petty cash to buy water balloons to throw at the UPS guy.”

(those of you who caught the abysmal adverbs in the original version get a free margarita)Yes, I know, Hemingway it ain’t. But I used nary a tag, I reformatted this so the reader knows who is talking at all times, and I got rid of the talking heads. Margaritas anyone?

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