Sunday, November 24, 2013


THERE IS SO MUCH I COULD SAY ABOUT WRITING BAD DIALOGUE that I hardly know where to begin. If I were to give you my Top 10 List of what your characters shouldn’t say or do in dialogue, this would be it.  

In dialogue, don't allow your characters to:

 1). Reflect ordinary reality: when your characters’ dialogue reflects the kinds of conversations we have with friends and co-workers every day, the dialogue is often redundant and boring. Beginner writers usually feel they need to portray reality, so they mimic the kinds of conversation they hear around them. For example:
"Hi, Wanda," Dave said.
"Oh, hi, Dave," replied Wanda.
"How's it going?" 
"Not bad. How's it going with you?"
"All right. Monday morning, you know. Wish it was still the weekend."
"Yeah, me too. Did you and Greg go see The Hobbit like you'd planned?"
"Nah. Greg came down with the flu, so I stayed home."
"Oh, too bad. Well, gotta get to work. See you."
"Yeah. See you."
Good dialogue should have a reason for being there – either to further the action (plot), or reflect character. In the above conversation, Dave and Wanda are interchangeable; there's nothing in their dialogue to distinguish them as people (you could switch the dialogue tags around, and it wouldn't matter). Chitchat like this does nothing to further the plot. Great dialogue almost always has an emotional overlay. It can be direct, or aggressive, or evasive, or quirky, or confused, or tense, or whatever (fill in the blank with the emotion of the moment). It shouldn't be redundant. Or boring.

2). Use exposition to fill in the reader: for example: “Amazing, isn’t it?” Fernando said, as they stared at the Hope diamond. “According to legend, the diamond was originally plucked from the eye of Sita, a Hindu goddess, by a man named Tavernier, who was later torn to pieces by wild dogs after he returned to Russia. Later, the diamond was worn by Louis XVI’s queen, Marie Antoinette. Some say it’s due to the diamond that she and Louis were beheaded during the French Revolution, but their deaths were as much due to royal extravagance as the poverty and disillusionment of the masses.” Quite the mouthful. Don’t treat your readers as if you're forcing them at gun point to listen to you pontificate in a lecture hall or museum. Readers are willing to take the time to figure things out. Feed them small, intriguing bits of information. 

3). Overdo the speech tags: once a dialogue has started, the back and forth flow is assumed. Indicate who says what for the first two lines, but don’t differentiate after that unless a third speaker intervenes (as dull as the conversation in example one is, above, once Dave and Wanda are established as speakers, you no longer need to differentiate). If a third speaker enters the conversation, you would need to clarify who says what.  Further, ‘he said/she said’ speech tags can often be cut entirely and replaced with a character doing an action. You still need to be a bit careful, however. This doesn't work: "Give me a break," Steve glowered. This is better: "Give me a break." Steve glowered. Steve can't speak a 'glower'. The difference is in the punctuation. 

4). Go overboard with adverbs: Some pro's will tell you to not use adverbs following a speech tag altogether. I don’t mind the occasional adverb to describe how a character says something, but use them sparingly. Again, the dialogue needs to flow. Dialogue tags are usually better when they are invisible (ie. most readers gloss over the he said/she said and don't really see them). Too many adverbs draw attention to themselves and remind the reader he's reading.

5). Follow speech tags with baggage: here’s an example: “But Wanda… what do you mean you’re going to quit?” Dave asked her plaintively, not bothering to keep the quaver out of his voice, for what would he do every Monday morning now if he didn’t see her warm and open smile, the one thing that made him feel happy for the rest of the day? The baggage at the end is expositional. If Dave really has a thing for Wanda, we should have a strong sense of that before she tells him she’s quitting. (See #8).

6). Go heavy on dialects: which of the following pieces of dialogue is easier to read? 
Example One: “Lookee, there. How ‘bout that? It were jus’ playin’ possum. If yer c’ain’t beat ‘m ‘r talk ‘m outta it, ya’s may’s well join ‘m.”  
Example Two: “Lookee, there. It was just playin’ possum. If you can’t beat ‘em, or talk ‘em outta it, you may as well as join ‘em.”
Example Two is easier to read. The first one snags the eye too much, which draws attention to itself and pulls the reader out of the story. With dialects, less is more.  

7). Preach: This can happen anywhere in the plot, but it often shows up in the denouement, where the writer feels the need to hammer his message home. When this happens, I always feel like I’ve been cornered by someone at a party who thinks he needs to share his wisdom with me (because I didn’t get it in the theme), or he needs to vent (because I'm probably guilty of polluting the environment, eating meat, driving and texting, or whatever). Preachy dialogue lacks sophistication. And it's annoying. Nobody likes to be preached at.

8). Keep a stiff upper lip, or 'Who Needs Internal Dialogue'? I recently got two thirds of the way through a novel, before I put it down and wondered why I was having a hard time connecting with the protagonist. It finally dawned on me that although the writer handled the action well, I had no idea what her main character was thinking or feeling. Why? Because she never shared that with me, except through facial expressions and body language. Readers want to connect emotionally with your characters. They do that by knowing what your hero (or anti-hero) is thinking and feeling, and why. 

9). Be so clever (or vague), that no one knows what’s going on: this is a case where the dialogue offers tantalizing hints, or where some name dropping and back story are involved, but by the end of the story, neither the action, nor the resolution are clear. This is like being invited to a party where you hardly know anyone, someone’s spiked the punch bowl, and the night passes by in a vague, dreamy blur. You know you’ve been to a party, you remember a few snatches of conversation, but you have no idea what dramas played out, or how you got home. (To be fair, this isn’t just a dialogue problem, but a plot and character one.) 

10). Forget that silence is golden. Sometimes, what isn’t said, is even more powerful than what is. Your characters don’t need to be yakking all of the time. Pregnant pauses, lack of responses, or having one character change the subject to avoid a prickly issue, can say as much as a conversation can.


  1. Great points. I learned the adverb one years ago and now I am in a face off with my writer friend about how many I can critique out of her work, lol.

  2. Best of luck with that. Sometimes, we just have to learn on our own. I suspect I still probably use too many. Thanks for commenting, Kate.