I’ve seen a lot of bad dialogue out there, folks. I have closed books because of dialogue. I have edited over swamps of swampy smelly dialogue. I have written the worst dialogue on the planet.
The thing about dialogue is: it’s tricky. It’s not something you can just add to a piece to give it more “action.” In fact, dialogue should play its own role. If you have two characters discussing the weather, and your story is not about some atmospheric phenomenon, then you have a problem.
But Lina, they cry, I’m trying to “show” how cool my characters are and how observant, and how polite, and wahhh.
Showing is great. There are ways to show things without handing me a whiff of poo speech. I’ll get to that later.
For now, let’s talk about that spread of quotations that you’ve just wrapped around a turd.
Let’s say that you’ve written something spectacular. The story is one unique and twisted idea. The description makes your readers weep. The prologue is actually necessary to the story. It’s not about sparkling vampires.
All of that is void if you have bad dialogue. Nobody wants to read:
“Not much. What’s up with you?”
“Not much. How’s your girlfriend?”
Gag. Gag. Gag.
I just read some pretty scummy dialogue in The Time Traveler’s Wife. It sparked this post, actually. I just can’t get over how “normal” the dialogue is. I can’t get over how it had nothing to do with the plot. I can’t get over it. I have closed the book!
IS YOUR DIALOGUE DOING THIS TO YOUR BEAUTIFUL STORY?!
Here are a few common dialogue mistakes:
- Common talk (hi, hey, what’s up?)
- Smothering the reader with italics (I get it…he emphasized the yeah)
- It has nothing to do with plot (why are we talking about the cheeseburger when there’s an alien spaceship on top of our house?)
- Cliche statements (“Don’t you die on me, Man.”) READ MORE HERE
- Cliche conversation (Parent one: “Honey, you need to focus more on your grades.” Parent two: “Don’t you want to get into a good college?” Child one: “You don’t understand me!”)
Many writers also feel that dialogue has to explain things. Stephen King likes to fill entire pages with dialogue. It’s boring. It doesn’t make the story any less or any more interesting than what typical exposition, or hell, a scene might do. For instance, when I was first starting out, I had my characters tell the story through their dialogue.
“Why are you wearing that hat?”
“I just picked it up.”
“Thanks for putting it down.”
“I’m going to put it back on.”
Disclaimer: not a real example but just as bad.
Gag. Gag. Gag.
In fact, you could probably explain more (and give the reader something to look at) in action than in dialogue.
“There’s an owl outside.”
Horatio leaned out the window, catching glimpse of a barn owl.
“I hate birds,” he said.
See the difference? Instead of a bland statement, the reader gets something to look at, and gets a character.
Here are a few WINS with dialogue:
- Character (yes, your dialogue needs to have character…with your character…)
- Moves the plot forward
To accent my little lesson here, I’m going to take one real-live poo stain of MY OWN crappy dialogue and work the world through it.
*Warning: Rough Draft Contents Below. Proceed with Caution*
Crappy Dialogue Draft One:
“It’s a shame we stopped talking,” I said.
“And who’s fault is that?” She folded her arms.
“C’mon, Sammy, you know exactly why I-”
“Oh yeah. I’m sure it was all about not wanting to ruin my life or some bullshit like that.” Samantha let out an exasperated groan and put her head in her hands.
“I couldn’t do it to you anymore.” I looked down.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“You have no idea what it’s like!” I sat up straight and stared toward the ocean.
“Oh, and I’m sure you knew what it was like for me to lose you! You hurt me more when you left me than you did when we were together!”
I looked down and fumbled with the bottom of my t-shirt. “I didn’t deserve you…”
Crappy Dialogue Edits:
“It’s a shame we stopped talking,” I said. (This is bland. What twenty-something dude says it’s a shame?)
“And who’s fault is that?” She folded her arms. (The reader is not scared. It needs more specific stabbing motions).
“C’mon, Sammy, you know exactly why I-” (C’mon is just an added word. Italics aren’t necessary here. This dialogue doesn’t move the story at all).
“Oh yeah. I’m sure it was all about not wanting to ruin my life or some bullshit like that.” Samantha let out an exasperated groan and put her head in her hands. (This dialogue only shows that she knows he has issues. It needs to be more specific for the reader to care. It could do with a little reminiscing. Swearing is not necessary here–it doesn’t *shock* the reader which is what swearing is supposed to do).
“I couldn’t do it to you anymore.” I looked down. (Do what? More bland statements)
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” (This is too many words for such a short insult)
“You have no idea what it’s like!” I sat up straight and stared toward the ocean. (What what is like? Again, why does the reader care?)
“Oh, and I’m sure you knew what it was like for me to lose you! You hurt me more when you left me than you did when we were together!” (I’m drowning in italics. And we FINALLY learn HE left HER. Why was this necessary in a dialogue? Why did he leave her?)
I looked down and fumbled with the bottom of my t-shirt. “I didn’t deserve you…” (The added dots at the end of this sentence are just morse code for gag)
Crappy Dialogue Draft Two (after working on it for 15 + minutes):
“I almost forgot that laugh,” I said. Samantha glared out the car window.
“As if that makes up for it all.”
“I had my reasons.” I thumbed the steering wheel, remembering how heavy the snow had fallen on the night I’d finally confessed my parents were dead. College had been hell. Alcohol had been a close second. “I was a jackass.”
Samantha snorted. “That’s stupid.”
“Stupid almost killed me.”
“And I would have buried you upside down.”
We shared a laugh. A salty breeze gushed into the car through a cracked window. I sighed. “I didn’t deserve that laugh.”
It’s not perfect, but I feel it’s a good example for this exercise. We need to be making our dialogue more literal and a little less wordy. We need to take out the added periods, the italics, and add in some action. If you show the reader what your character is doing beforehand, you might not even need the words “shouted” or “whispered.”
Marcy threw the phone across the room. “What a freak!”
Marcy sank to a chair, rubbing a tear. “What a freak.”
What are some of the things YOU do to edit dialogue? Are there any tips you’d like to add? Is dialogue an easy or hard thing for you to accomplish? I want to know YOUR experiences with dialogue!