We know we need to include dialogue in our stories, but what about bad dialogue? How can dialogue go wrong? Let’s take a look at some common dialogue blunders.
Chitchat: I’ve talked about this before. It’s when a character goes on and on about nothing. Or when two characters exchange small talk about the weather or what they had for supper. The point is that this type of dialogue doesn’t move the story forward and doesn’t add to the development of the characters. While it’s true we speak like that in real life, we don’t want to read about it in fiction.
The Filler-Inner: This is when the author uses dialogue to tell the reader about something in the past. This can work, but must be done in a way that it doesn’t come across as fake. For example, Bob says, “As you know, Mary, we broke up three years ago.” This doesn’t represent true dialogue because Mary obviously knows this already, so the only purpose it serves it to inform the reader. Instead, this same message should’ve been in either Bob or Mary’s inner dialogue so the reader sees his or her thoughts on this, but the writing doesn’t come across as amateurish. The other way to approach this is if you really need to show the reader something that happened in the past and you want to do it through dialogue, have Bob tell another character who doesn’t know his history. For example, Bob could tell the detective, “I haven’t seen Mary since we broke up three years ago.”
Drama Queen: This is when dialogue is filled with exclamation points, but it’s also over the top. For example, “Johnny, how could you do this to me! After every thing we’ve been through! Tell me I’m wrong! Tell me you’re not leaving!” Granted sometimes you want ONE character to be a drama queen, but this has to be done on purpose and don’t make this character one of your main characters. Just as drama queens can be exhausting in real life, they are in fiction.
Name Dropping: Too many new writers name drop. All. The. Time. This is when the characters call each other by name several times a page. Think about it. In real life, we rarely call people by name when we’re having a discussion with them. It comes across as condescending. For example, “Yes, Bill. I see what you’re saying. Now, Bill, what if we each took a different route and timed it? Then, we could see which is the fastest.” The reader should know who’s talking because of the way the text is set up with action tags, inner dialogue, or narration, so there’s no need to have the characters call each other by name. Occasionally, you can do this, but it should be RARE.
Telling Emotions: This is when a character tells another character (and the reader) how he feels rather than show it. For example, “I’m so angry that she left me. I just want to kill someone.” Instead, maybe he should slam his fist through a wall, stomp his foot, grind his teeth, make a fist… anything but this.
Dialogue should read naturally. If you know and feel your characters, the words will flow. However, if you’re still struggling with dialogue, try paying closer attention to how others speak in real life, on TV, in movies, and in published novels.
Which dialogue disaster bothers you the most? What other blunders do writers make when writing dialogue? What is your dialogue weakness?