Are You Cheating the “Show Don’t Tell” Rule with Dialogue?: Basic Storytelling Elements Part 9

Welcome to my ten-part series where we’ll be going through the ten basics of storytelling as outlined in my guidebook The 10 Lost Elements of Storytelling – a book you can get for free by subscribing to my newsletter! In these posts, we’ll pound out the basics of these storytelling elements, but my guidebook is more detailed on some subjects and provides examples and resources. All you need to do is say “yes” to receiving a fun, inspirational, and educational newsletter once a month.

I have so much to say about dialogue that it’s difficult to consider condensing it all into one post. I’ll have to make several about it eventually, but in the meantime, you can subscribe to my newsletter using the above link and delve into this topic in the guidebook. For now, I want to focus on one aspect of dialogue: recognising when you’re using it to “cheat” the “show don’t tell” rule.

Surprisingly, I see many authors doing this, even in published works. It’s always been a difficult temptation to overcome, but it’s making a strong comeback in today’s world as authors are trying to find more “shortcuts.” I hate to tell you, but there are no writing shortcuts short of having someone else write for you.

Dialogue is being majorly abused in books even though it’s such a great tool that can elevate your book from good to great. I’ll cover just two offenders today. I’ve named them “info dumping” and “extra speaker tags.”

Info Dumping

We all know that info dumping is a no-no. Yet, people try to sneak it into dialogue in the hopes they’ll get away with it. (Spoiler: they don’t.) Here’s a made-up example:

“Look at those three hills over there,” the boy said. “They’re such a pretty shade of green and full of tall trees. I wonder why they’re called the Shadow Mound?”

“It’s because King Omel lost his wife there in the Battle of the Deep,” the girl explained. “It was the key battle that separated our land from east and west. The elves battled the dwarves and it raged on for twenty-three years. It’s the reason why the elves and dwarves still hate each other now. And when the elven warlord killed King Omel’s wife, it’s said that the king saw the whole world in shadow.”

This is still a rather mild example, believe it or not, but do you see how this dialogue attempts to shove in backstory and scenery descriptions? In small amounts, this is okay and even good – but once it makes the characters start to sound unrealistic, that’s when it becomes a serious problem. (And I often see an issue where one character is explaining an event to another character who should already know all about this event. If you knew that someone had already experienced a certain event or if it’s a big part of history, you would never explain it to them in detail because there would be no need.)

Extra Speaker Tags

Now, let’s take a look at speaker tags – and when I say “extra,” I don’t mean “more;” I mean “tries way too hard.” People try to get super fancy with speaker tags in today’s books, but there’s no need. Speaker tags are meant to be invisible. Their function is to tell the reader who said what and, very occasionally, how they said it.

Again, using a speaker tag like “she said quickly” sparingly is not bad. But if every speaker tag is coupled with an adverb, you’re telling the reader the tone of voice rather than having them infer it from the dialogue itself or the character’s actions, both of which are far better.

Despite all of this, dialogue can be a really useful way to show instead of tell. That might sound confusing, but it all has to do with balance. Dialogue is a great place to give important information to the reader quickly while also developing characters at the same time.

In the end, the key is to use dialogue well. Be intentional. It’s a tool, not a cheat. And don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter so you can learn more on this topic!

Happy writing!
-E.J.

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