MarshmallowsTwo elements are critical to every novel: crisp, tension-filled dialogue between characters, and—wait for it—characters that actually have reasonable names.

No-brainers? You might think so, but problems in these areas are as common as potholes in winter. Let’s take a look at what’s called marshmallow dialogue, with thanks to James Scott Bell, “The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them)” (

Marshmallow Dialogue

What on earth is marshmallow dialogue? It’s dialogue that is fat and fluffy, like a marshmallow. And, like a marshmallow, it doesn’t really add anything of substance.

Face it: Dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript—and it’s also the fastest way to sink it. Great dialogue demonstrates a writer’s ability. Dialogue that is sodden and undistinguished (marshmallow dialogue) has the opposite effect.

Consider these contrasts:

  • Pro dialogue is compressed. Marshmallow dialogue is puffy.
  • Pro dialogue has conflict. Marshmallow dialogue is overly sweet.
  • Pro dialogue sounds different for each character. Marshmallow dialogue blends together.

Dialogue has two general purposes: to provide essential information and to show character. To do that, dialogue must sound real. Never allow your characters to make long confessional speeches or engage in too much cozy chit-chat. Stick to the plot. If the dialogue doesn’t move it along, get rid of it.

Burned marshmallowTo avoid marshmallow dialogue:

  • Make sure you can “hear” every character in a distinct voice.
  • Create a voice journal: a document written in a character’s voice, talking to you, the author, on a variety of topics. Develop these documents until each character sounds unique, and then apply what you’ve learned to your manuscript.
  • Include some sort of tension in every exchange.
  • Compress dialogue as much as possible, cutting fluffy words, whole lines, or even entire exchanges.

Here’s a great example:

“Mary, are you angry with me?” John asked.

“You’re damn straight I’m mad at you,” Mary said.

“But why? You’ve got absolutely no reason to be!” John said.

“Oh but I do, I do. And you can see it in my face, can’t you?” Mary said.

Now check out the better alternative:

“You angry with me?” John asked.

“Damn straight,” Mary said.

“You got no reason to be!”

Mary felt her hands curling into fists.


Baby nameAnd What About Those Outlandish Names?

It doesn’t really matter what your characters are saying if their names sound like something straight out of the Twilight Zone. Moira Allen at drew a line in the sand about this topic in “Five Fiction Mistakes that Spell Rejection” (

Editor Tom Rice of Elbow Creek Magazine remarked, “Nothing pulls me out of a story more quickly than thinking, ‘No parent in their right mind would have named their child that.’”

And Tommy Zurhellen of Black Warrior Review said, “Don’t be cute. When I see Mercutio or Hezekiah, I drop the story. Write about real people.”

And you’ll love what one editor had to say: “I’m not saying authors shouldn’t be creative with names, but the more outlandish and contrived names get, the less credible a book can seem. I’ve received a lot of books about Trens and Laynys and Tridgers and Skyleighs and Aerises and Bracklynns, and I’m here to tell you that a unique name for your main character does not make your manuscript stand out, at least not in a good way.”

This is an easy one to solve: If you wouldn’t give your child that name, don’t saddle your character with it.

James Scott BellJames Scott Bell is the number-one bestselling author of Plot & Structure and of award-winning thrillers like Final Witness. He served as fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest Magazine, to which he frequently contributes, and has written three additional craft books for Writer’s Digest Books, including Revision & Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict & Suspense. Follow him on Twitter @jamesscottbell. 


(Photos: burned marshmallow, Joe Belanger, Fine Art America; baby name, nepaliaustralian; James Scott Bell, Writer’s Digest)


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