I just finished reading a political thriller that could have been pretty interesting...if I hadn't been so confused much of the time I was reading it.
Avoid ambiguity in your dialogue!
Here's what rattled me: Over and over, the author had one character say something, and a different character do something, in the same paragraph.
Here's an example, with names changed. Over three paragraphs, we learn about a meeting between John Smith and David Johnson. The first two paragraphs are clear, but by the end of the third one, I'm lost:
"Thanks for taking my meeting on such short notice, Mr. Smith."
"Call me John, please. And it's no problem at all. I am always happy to take a referral from Mr. Winfield. Sit," he said, pointing to the conference table in his office. "Can we get you some coffee, water, anything?"
"Thanks, no." The two sat down. "Well, let me start with a confession. Mr. Winfield didn't refer me to you. He doesn't even know who I am," which in the greater context of things, was true. John Smith looked at David Johnson quizzically. "I am here to make you a business proposal."
Some authors successfully have multiple speakers in a paragraph with no ambiguity, but not every writer has that ability. To avoid uncertainty about who is speaking, break up the dialogue and action into separate paragraphs per character, as the author did well in the first two paragraphs. Separating the speakers keeps the readers focused on the story, not the structure. It also results in shorter paragraphs, which makes your book easier - and thus more enjoyable - to read. Who doesn't like the feeling of progress that comes with turning a page?
Maria Murnane is the best-selling author of the romantic comedies Perfect on Paper, It's a Waverly Life, and Honey on Your Mind. She also provides consulting services on book publishing and marketing. Learn more at www.mariamurnane.com.
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