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Bad Dialogue—Bad, Bad Dialogue

November 3, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 13, 2012

A few writers have come to The Editor’s Blog searching for examples of bad dialogue, so I thought it time to offer examples of character-speak you’ll want to steer away from in your fiction.

Dialogue can sing, can bring characters to life and readers to tears. But you want those readers crying at the emotions your stories raise in them. You certainly don’t want them crying because your dialogue is so odious that it wrings those tears from them the way a pungent onion could.

And you don’t want readers howling with laughter at dialogue no self-respecting third-rate amateur actress would turn up her nose at.

We’ve all heard movie or TV dialogue that makes us shriek, shocked at how awful it is. Don’t give your readers a reason to howl at bad dialogue in your books. Instead, have them purring at the beautiful and engaging words that pour from your characters’ lips.

Or at the very least, keep them reading along, pulled deeper and deeper into your fictional world, by your dialogue.

So . . .

What types of dialogue don’t work? Which cause problems not only for your characters, but for your reputation?

Let’s look at a few dialogue snafus. (Remembering that you could intentionally put some of these dialogue problems to work for you instead of against you. A skilled writer can manipulate words for any purpose and to any advantage.)

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Repetition
I’ve talked about repetition before, but how about examples of repetition that might have readers pulling out their hair, wishing it was yours?

Keep in mind that repetition comes in several forms including words, word forms, and sound or letter combinations

“Yeah, Jack ran after Melanie,” Arthur told us. “Jack tried to get her to turn around. Jack ran down the street, calling Melanie’s name, determined she’d listen to Jack’s pleas one time.” Arthur snapped his fingers. Nodded. “Yeah, Jack would get her to listen. Jack had that way about him. Melanie didn’t stand a chance. Not with Jack dogging her that way.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Racing around the block, I’d hated that I’d been seen.”

“Hoping for a break, were you?” Peterson asked

Heaving short breaths in and out, Reece said,” Thinking about that last assignment had me looking forward to retirement, ordering my next drink.”

“Drinking calm you?”

“Drinking? Yeah, it calms.” Pointing his revolver at Peterson he said, “Killing, on the other hand, always gets me buzzing.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“I already told you, man. Charlie stopped by his church, looking for a way to reach out to the maintenance man who checked out the place after hours. He had a check for him, thought maybe he’d take him to lunch—chicken sandwiches and a pitcher of beer were his usual choices.” Chester searched for our own waitress. “Maybe peach pie.” He chuckled. “For them, not us. And Charlie didn’t consider it charity.” Chester grabbed our check before I could. “He simply chose, on a hunch, to share his handouts in person.”   

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Direct question and answer
Yes, sometimes characters ask and answer questions in a straightforward manner. But not all the time. Not most of the time. Not for an extended period of time.

Sometimes you want evasion and misunderstanding and deliberate antagonism between characters. You don’t often want . . .

 “Did you get the aspirin, babe? I really need it.”

“Yes, I got the aspirin.”

“And the burger buns. I hope you got those.”

“Yes, I got the burger buns.”

“Did you remember to stop by my mother’s house? She said she had something for us.”

“No, I didn’t remember to stop by your mother’s house. I didn’t remember that she said she had something for us.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“So, Patsy. Tell me about yourself. How old are you?”

“I’m thirteen.”

“Do you go to school?”

“Yes, I go to Adams Park Middle School.”

“What do you study?”

“School subjects.”

“And do you want to be here today?”

“No, I don’t want to be here.”

“Can you tell me a little about your family?”

“No, I don’t want to talk about my family.”

“How about what happened to you that night?”

“I don’t want to talk about that night.”

“And you said you don’t want to be here today?”

“Yes.”

Of course, you can instantly jazz up this dialogue with a few simple changes. How does this hit you?

“So, Patsy. Tell me about yourself. How old are you?”

“Thirteen.”

“Do you go to school?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you study?”

“Stuff.”

“Hmm . . . And do you want to be here today?”

“No.”

“Can you tell me a little about your family?”

“No.”

“How about what happened to you that night?”

“No.”

“Hmm . . . And you said you don’t want to be here today?”

“They give you that ugly shrink diploma for your conversational expertise?” 

____________________________

 

Stilted words and phrasing
Ignoring contractions or choosing words that make your characters sound like newcomers to the language can annoy readers.

Yes, you can use halting, stilted language to good effect. But not every character would speak in a stilted manner. And one that does might loosen up after being with other characters for an extended period.

Words too fancy, esoteric, poetic or studied, words that are too exact, words that don’t fit the character, the moment, the emotion of the scene or the tone of the story can get in the way of reader enjoyment.

“Yes, I do want a cookie with my milk. I would also like a sandwich.”

“Chocolate chip okay?

“Yes, chocolate chip would be good. Please give me two chocolate chip cookies and one very large glass of milk. I will eat them at the kitchen table. I cannot sit at the dining room table.”

“You talk kinda funny for a kid.”

“I am only four. What do you think a four-year-old child should sound like? Maybe you are the one who talks kind of funny.”

____________________________

Preaching
Putting your pet theory or your political, religious, or social beliefs into the mouth of a character and letting the character pontificate on and on is a sure way to keep readers from coming back to your books. From ever coming back.

Yes, you may have readers who agree with your discoveries, rantings, ravings, time-honored positions, revelations, theories, and your life-altering epiphanies. But fiction is not the place for preaching the party line. If your character has a position to defend, let him do it. And make him convincing.

Remember, however, that your position has no place in his mouth. This isn’t ventriloquist school. This is fiction, where truth is revealed, not force fed. Write your treatises if you want to, if you need to. But let characters be characters, not your ideal Mini-Me.

Some of your characters, some of the solid ones who defeat the bad guys, won’t be just like you. They won’t hold the same positions. They won’t have the same values. They might never choose you for a trusted friend. But they can still be the perfect character for your tale. And you’ll have to be the one to make them believable. And solid. And good.

Yeah. Sometimes you’ll have to make them good, those characters who don’t agree with your positions.

Are you writer enough to create them? Strong enough to stay away from . . .

“The president did it again last night. Did you see? The bozo was going off again on the war. Damn, he opens his mouth and crap comes oozing out.”

“Give it a rest, J.J. I’m trying to eat breakfast.” Sue tossed a pillow at him. “Every day you start with him. The pres—“

“That’s ’cause every day he gives me such great material to work with.” J.J. leaned toward the TV, cranked up the volume. “Watch this, Susie. Watch. He’s gonna lay out his wacked-out plan to [commit more troops, pull out the troops, raise taxes, cut taxes, hike defense spending, gut defense spending].”

Sue dropped her head against the couch.

J.J. stabbed the volume button until the room shook with the president’s voice.

“See.” J.J. pointed, nearly falling off the couch. “Loser. I can’t stand to watch him. How’d anyone vote him into office. Stupid masses. They shouldn’t be allowed to vote.”

Sue threw another pillow. The one studded with beads.

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Uninterrupted speech of any kind (John Galt, anyone?)
Atlas Shrugged has good points and bad points. John Galt’s speech probably should be a high point.

It isn’t.

Ayn Rand let Galt talk for pages and pages and pages without interruption. No action. No interaction with the setting. No contradictory dialogue from other characters. No input from other characters.

Rand stopped all forward motion of her fiction to allow her character to present her social theory. (See the previous dialogue no-no.) But even if it hadn’t been a theory she espoused, letting a character talk for 70 pages nonstop will not endear readers to your books or your style.

Stories succeed because they’re a mix of elements—action, dialogue, exposition, more action, conflict, and so on. When any one element takes over, story becomes something other than story. And readers notice. And they get bored or mad or frustrated.

How much dialogue is too much? Fifty pages is definitely too much. Three pages may be too much. Even three paragraphs may be more than enough.

You’ll have to make the decision for each writing project. You’ll have more leeway with some characters and some plots than with others. But don’t imagine that your fifty pages of dialogue is going to revolutionize storytelling.

Consider the nature of story, with its conflict and adversarial moments. Unchallenged dialogue drains conflict. Unless a character is at war within himself, if there’s no challenge to his words, his dialogue will go flat. And so will the story.

I’m not going to make up an example for this one. Check out Atlas Shrugged. See for yourself what uninterrupted dialogue can do to bring your story to a stop.

I promise you’ll remember the example for a long time.

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You know, Bob
This one’s known by a couple of cute names, but I like you know, Bob.

This is dialogue between characters who share information that they already know, just so readers can get caught up. Writers often use this technique to reveal childhood events that have a bearing on the now of the story.

Find another way to share back story. Characters don’t have any reason to stand around talking about events they both know about.

“Hey, that car’s just like the one you dad gave you when you turned sixteen,” Jenny said.

“Where?”

“Look! Here it comes again.”  Kai pointed at the Camaro racing down the street. “You remember when your parents had it waiting in the driveway? And that red bow was wrapped all around it?”

“Pink. I was into pink that year.”

“Pink? Whatever. And your brother wanted to borrow it that night. Remember? But you wanted to go out and you called me and then we went to that party, the one weren’t supposed to go to?’

“Yeah, I remember. But it wasn’t a Camaro.”

“It wasn’t?”

“Honda Civic.”

“Really? How come I remember that yellow Camaro?”

“That was that TV show. You know, the one with . . .

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Laugh-worthy dialogue tags
Sometimes simple is best. And sometimes the best, most invisible dialogue tags are said and asked. As long as they’re not overused, the reader’s eye typically passes over them, understanding meaning without making the reader slow or stop to gather more information.

This isn’t a discussion of dialogue tags, so we won’t go into reasons for going with the basics or talk about the allowances that let us use creative tags and make them work for the story.

Let’s just look at a few dialogue tags you won’t want to use. I’m sure you’ve come across many others in your own reading.

Keep in mind that the only verbs you should use in dialogue tags are those used to speak words. Yes, characters can cajole and entice. And they use words to do it. But the words aren’t cajoled or enticed, they’re spoken.

Thus, He enticed her with promises of chocolate cake works just fine. But, “How about a thick slice of chocolate cake,” he enticed becomes laughable.

Others that could have your readers howling . . .

“My gut hurts,” he blurted out.

“I just had to let it go,” he ejaculated.

“We can’t wait to join that devil worship cult,” she enthused.

“Popping and cracking gum,” she hissed,” killed the mood for me.” (Hissing requires an S sound or two.)

“I love you,” she breathed [smiled, husked, laughed, moaned . . .].

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Adverbs used to describe the delivery of every line of dialogue
If you read a lot of classics or other novels from more than 50 years ago, you’re likely to have seen a lot of adverbs paired with dialogue tags.

Such a practice is far less appealing to today’s reader.

Instead of using adverbs to describe how a line of dialogue is delivered, use the words, especially verbs, around the dialogue to reflect a character’s mood or disposition, his attitude, the emotion behind his words. And if you find you like the impact of an adverb paired with a dialogue tag, use it. Don’t, however, line up a series of such pairings back to back.

Use adverbs sparingly.

“I’m looking for a bank,” she said worriedly.

“There’s one, maybe two, on the next block,” he answered assuredly.

She batted her eyes. “Would you walk with me?” she asked imploringly.

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I’ve got a few more bad dialogue categories for this list, but who needs a longer article? How about I give you a brief description of other kinds of bad dialogue. You’ll probably be able to supply your own examples.

Boring talk that has nothing to do with the story or characters
If dialogue doesn’t advance the plot, reveal character, increase conflict, or set or change mood, what’s it doing in your story?

Put dialogue to work. Skip the filler and go for the meat. Cut out boring, purposeless talk.

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Boring talk that has everything to do with the story or characters
Your story talk is key to the plot or characters but it’s boring anyway? Take it out.

Spice it up, pare it down, change the words, change the sound. Don’t bore yourself or your readers, even with dialogue that pertains to story elements.

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Words or sentiments that don’t fit the era—no okay before its time
Make sure your characters’ speech fits the era. Folks were not saying okay during the American Revolution.

Be especially careful of modern words used as verbs. Compute is an old word, and so a character from the 1700s could have computed (calculated). But while tank is also an old word, tanked meaning to fail is from the 1970s.

Also remember that men and women of different eras don’t have today’s sensibilities. They might not espouse concerns about slavery or women’s rights or environmental issues. Let both their words choices and the topics of their dialogue fit the era.

____________________________

Political correctness—a novel is not the place to censor speech
Let your characters speak as they should. Story conversations—and confrontations and fights—are intended to stir up conflict for the characters and tension for the readers.

Let your characters just come right out and say it, whatever it is. Don’t limit fictional people of any era because of the political correctness of our own day.

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Cussing, Cursing, Blue language
Too much cussing or not enough cussing for the character or the intended audience can make your dialogue laughable.

If a character would say it, should say it, put the words in his mouth.

If profane words don’t fit the character or the story or the intended audience, cut them out.

Use what works for your characters and plots, what strengthens them. Refrain from putting your favorite curse words in everyone’s mouth. And don’t hold back when your character should cut loose with a string of curses.

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Dialogue without subtext
I’ve written a full article on subtext, so here I’ll just remind writers to include subtext in dialogue.

Dialogue that’s all surface, with no hidden meaning or emotion, is flat. And readers will grow quickly bored with flat dialogue.

Add subtext to dialogue to keep characters on edge and readers aware of undercurrents. Your stories will be richer for your attention to this story element.

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Talking heads
Talking heads are characters involved in dialogue without regard to story action or setting.

When characters ping-pong their dialogue but don’t interact with objects in the setting, when readers don’t even know where they are when they’re talking, you’ve got talking heads.

Keep in mind that characters are more than just their minds and their words. They act and react and feel. Don’t allow them long stretches when readers don’t know where they are and what they’re doing.

____________________________

 

Ah . . . Samples of bad dialogue. I hope you keep far from these so your dialogue is not laughed at but enjoyed by thousands of readers.

Bad dialogue weighs fiction down with unnecessary encumbrances. Throw them off before they have time to pull down your story.

Avoid bad dialogue. Concentrate on story talk that enhances plot and character, that highlights the drama and the conflict.

Write good dialogue. Write good story.

***

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27 Responses to “Bad Dialogue—Bad, Bad Dialogue”

  1. Chihuahua0 says:

    It looks like you pretty much covered all the bases.

  2. I hope so, Chihuahua0. But I’d love to see other examples if anyone wants to share.

  3. Thanks, Beth. Exactly what I was looking for. Most of it is pretty straightforward, when you think about it. If you think about it…

  4. You’ve hit it, Hajo. We’ve got to think about all the issues pertaining to writing, at least until they come to us so naturally that we do—or don’t do—them regularly.

  5. Nice reminders for writers. :)

  6. Brina Brady says:

    Awesome article. Thank you. I learn something new every day from you.
    Brina Brady

  7. Thanks for a great site, but you should make yourself the star. I had to search for very tiny letters at the top to figure out who wrote it. Own it, girlfriend! (Bad dialogue choice?)

    Just saying.
    Thanks,
    Mary g

    • Thanks for pointing that out, Mary. And the dialogue choice isn’t bad, though it made me think of Idina Menzel in Enchanted.

      I popped up the size a bit, but I may have to add my name to the masthead. When I first designed the site, I was worried about learning WordPress, getting some content up, and making sure my name was at least attached to the articles. I didn’t really think about putting my name in the masthead, though I might now that you mention it.

  8. Sheogorath says:

    “They give you that ugly shrink diploma for your conversational expertise?”
    To make a point you made in a different post, would a thirteen-year-old even use the words ‘conversational expertise’ if they knew them? It’s even less likely if the character is a boy.
    Ignoring contractions or choosing words that make your characters sound like newcomers to the language can annoy readers.
    Yes, absolutely. In fact, I try to avoid contractions in third person, but in quotation marks or first/second person, anything goes (within reason). Of course, there may be stylistic reasons to ignore those rules, but they’re rare.
    Find another way to share back story. Characters don’t have any reason to stand around talking about events they both know about.
    I would just have it as a mixture of dialogue and one character’s thoughts. For example:
    “Hey, that car’s just like the one you dad gave
    you when you turned sixteen,” Jenny said.
    “Where?”
    “Look! Here it comes again.” Kai pointed at the
    Camaro racing down the street. “You remember now?”
    Jayden did remember the yellow car that had appeared on his parents’ driveway the year he had turned sixteen. It had been wrapped in a pink bow rather than the traditional red because he had been into that particular colour then. He also recalled his older brother wanting to borrow it the same night, but Jayden had instead used it to take his friends to a party they weren’t supposed to attend.
    “Yeah, I remember,” he said finally. “But it wasn’t a Camaro.”
    “It wasn’t?”
    “Honda Civic.”
    “Really? How come I remember that yellow
    Camaro?”
    “That was that TV show. You know, the one
    with . . .

  9. e r says:

    If anyone gets to this comment, be warned that at least half of what you read is arbitrary MFA foolishness.

    • Sheogorath says:

      If you’re saying that Beth Hill’s articles are Master of Fine Arts ‘foolishness’, then that’s a recommendation, not a warning. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to clarify what you mean. Simples!

      • e r says:

        Wow. I can’t believe I wrote that last night. I was in a super paranoid mood and obviously also being an insomniac. Yet I guess if I need to defend it, I will.. man… I can’t believe..

  10. e r says:

    Because I have commented in a place that does not allow comments to be deleted for some creepy reason, I am now in a position where I have to defend myself. Although I do believe this website and this post to be of good intentions, as in, to help writers discover things about their dialogue that could have a second look, I also believe that it is written in a style that presents apparent “facts” about writing and gives absolutes about the whys and wherefores of how dialogue should be. I do not believe there is an absolute, complete true way to make one’s characters talk in their work of fiction. I believe the examples given are more examples of bad technique rather than bad dialogue. There is a difference–one frames their characters’ words a certain way, and their characters say things a certain way. I believe that when it comes to what they actually say, it should be as representative of reality as possible, not to make the writing seem more put together.

    Repetition- Although hearing repetitive sounds can be unpleasant and make writing ugly, it happens. People repeat themselves when they talk. They often repeat strange things or enunciate at weird times. Imagine a person out of breath, talking to a deaf man, a person in crisis, having a breakdown, being cruel or mean, and other things cause people in real life to speak repetitively.

    “John.”

    “What?”

    “John–” Mick paused, looking away sheepishly to the far window in the room. Mick said nothing, continuing to smoke a cigar like a statue.

    “John, I think… I don’t know, actually. John, I don’t know.”

    Direct question and answer – Sometimes people engage in direct question-answer type of conversations, especially if they are awkward together, or in a tense moment. And also, sometimes a direct question-answer implies gaping space between what they say–a white space shivering with meaning. I think of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

    Stilted words and phrasing- People are awkward in real life. They might say things that are awkward. The language surrounding the dialogue shouldn’t be stilted, but people have stilted conversations. I argue that stilted language in dialogue can be a great way to characterize.

    “You been here much, John?”

    Deliberation flashed on his face. “I don’t like much being here, thank you. I would rather be in a pickup truck fishing in some kind of Alaskan suit.”

    Mick stood up hastily and said, “I don’t know you for doing that.”

    Preaching – I agree with this one completely. Keep your political agendas out of your art.

    Talking long – Nobody talks for fifty pages. Agreed.

    Small talk in dialogue- I would make the same argument that people make small talk. If your characters make small talk, they make small talk. It will not likely exist in a vacuum because it, by default by being in the story, contributes. What comes before and after the small talk is probably more important, but it gives a little flexibility to put this in, I think.

    Laugh worthy dialogue tags – I don’t know if “laughing” at someone for their slip up in dialogue tags is appropriate, but verbs as dialogue tags work on a case-by-case basis, with most of them not working. (I mostly agree.)

    “I’ll get out there tonight,” John said, looking down.

    “Help them,” Mick pleaded.

    John said nothing and looked at the door, taking another swig.

    “I guess you’ll do what you want,” Mick moaned. etc.

    Boring talk – People are boring. They might say boring things. Mostly everything of what is said in every day life is boring. Sometimes that’s just how it is.

    The general point I’m trying to make here is that dialogue should be as representative of real human speech as possible, not just to make the writing flow better.

    These however are my own personal opinions in a subjective world and business.

  11. e r says:

    Also, my sincerest apologies for criticizing anybody’s degree. It’s an accomplishment that deserves recognition.

  12. e r and Sheogorath—there’s certainly no reason for all writers or editors to agree with every writing suggestion—not every suggestion or comment fits every writing situation. Some suggestions work for most situations to help writers communicate what they intend to say, but of course those same suggestions don’t work for every case. Discussion is good. Options are great. Contributing to a dialogue on writing is helpful—a variety of viewpoints helps a writer develop his skills, can even get him to think about topics he might have never pondered before.

    e r, my take on dialogue is that it should have the flavor of real conversation rather than be truly representative of it. Conversation can be boring and repetitive, as you pointed out. But readers skip over dialogue that’s boring and repetitive (unless other effects of the dialogue capture the reader). Fictional dialogue is not a reflection of real conversations, not any more than events in a scene are are a reflection of a real person’s movements. We skip some of the unnecessary details of a character’s movements/motions. We do the same thing in dialogue—skip what is unnecessary.

    Writers can’t include everything, and that’s as true for dialogue as it is for action and description. The writer who learns not only what to include but what not to include is on the way to becoming a stronger writer. It’s hard to cut out what seems important, but stories and scenes are often stronger by cutting out what doesn’t belong.

    This doesn’t mean that repetition can’t work in dialogue or that we can’t show uncertainty, can’t show a character stumbling over his words. But including all the ums and uhs is seldom necessary.

    Thanks for including your insights. As I said, the variety of comments and suggestions add to a writer’s skill set.

    ———

    Just a note: no one is suggesting that anyone laugh at writers who “slip up” with their use of dialogue tags. It’s the combination of some dialogue tags with the dialogue that is itself laugh (or moan) inducing. One way to avoid such responses from readers is to restrict dialogue tags to those that are neutral, that don’t draw attention to themselves. No writer wants readers laughing at the underpinnings of a story. Most writers don’t even want the readers noticing the foundations. The story itself should occupy the reader’s attention.

    • Sheogorath says:

      Sheogorath—there’s certainly no reason for all writers or editors to agree with every writing suggestion—not every suggestion or comment fits every writing situation.
      I know that, it’s just that Master of Fine Arts is the only thing I know of which fits the acronym ‘MFA’ and is anywhere close to the subject, so I had to ask for a clarification, which has since been given. I still don’t know exactly what MFA stands for in e r’s mind, though.

  13. teddybowties says:

    Like this, right? Or am I wrong?

    The Doctor cringed and clutched the bowl of Jack’s toilet again as a new round of cramps rolled through his guts.
    “Honey, are you in there?” Jack was obviously getting thicker with age.
    “Pudding Brain!” the Doctor croaked, gritting his teeth tightly shut as another cramp bent his insides into pretzels.
    “I know, honey. Just hold on and we’ll get Martha or an Ood or somebody.”
    “Oh my god, is he?” Clara’s voice sounded strangled, as if she was holding back a laugh.

  14. teddybowties says:

    one ‘has’, they ‘have’.

    sorry!!!! can’t… stop… self…

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  1. […] encyclopedic knowledge, and they won’t spend the hours you will on those few lines each page. This post gives examples of bad dialogue, and explains what’s wrong with the excerpts. This is a really […]

  2. […] Hill has written a great blog post about problematic dialogue and is well worth the time to read.  She has hit the nail on the head of what makes dialogue sing […]

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