How to Fail at Dialogue: The Tennis Method

You’ve heard it said,  use action beats when creating dialogue–avoid the ubiquitous said. Great advice when done properly, but when overused, the reader gets a stiff neck as though watching an over active tennis match.

A popular series, I won’t mention any names, became a hit despite overusing interrupting beats. The author’s dialogue ran something like this:



“Want a Coke?”Collin took her glass. “You could have a ginger ale.”


“Another Scotch.” Torie propped her head in her hand. “That’s what I really want.”.


“Torie.” He raised an eyebrow. “You’ve had enough. How about a ginger ale?”


“Come on, Collin. I only had…” She smiled to win him over. “Three?”


“Try five. At least by my count.” He nodded toward the dining area. “Who knows who you conned out there?”  ”


“S’your job to give me drinks.” She stood on the chair stretcher. “’Specially as I’m paying good tip money for ʼem.”


“Torie, you’re cute and fun, but not like this.” Collin turned away, smiled. “Have a coffee.”


“Then I’m outta here.” Torie sat. “Where’s my keys?”


“No keys, Torie.” Collin wiped the bar. “I’m calling a cab for you.”
And so on and so on. With no variety and many unnecessary beats, we lose the sense of the dialogue and get whiplash. So what does an author do? Easy.
  1. Use beats, but vary them as you do sentence and paragraph length. Some are longer, some are shorter.
  2. Intersperse with straight action. If the action is essential, then devote a paragraph to it.
  3. Make the action necessary. I’ve read plenty of books where people are nabbing cups of coffee and gripping coffee pots so frequently, I’m surprised they have any glassware or ceramic cups left. Additionally, the characters toss smiles and quirk eyebrows ad infinitum. They begin to appear as marionettes, not humans.
  4. Find something other than eyebrows and mouths to move. It is true we concentrate on the face, but the constant lifting of eyebrows or quirking of smiles gets tiresome. I rarely note someone’s raised brows.
  5. Don’t be afraid of said. Dialogue, like action and narrative, needs to be included for a reason. In a heated debate, the words are what humans notice, not the actions. You can use no beats, just words. Occasionally, to just clarify who is speaking at the moment, use a said. It worked for Hemingway (But, don’t use it as often as he did), it can work for you.

Make your dialogue vital, and avoid the tennis match. Your readers will thank you for it. How do you make yours work?

No Comments

  1. I agree, Dianne. I didn't want to name any specifically–but a simple said sometimes is all you need just to clarify the speaker.

  2. Excellent advice. I've read books that looked like your example, and finally put them aside in disgust. TMI, author!!

  3. Linda, you are so good to me. Thanks.

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