"Is This Meaningful Dialogue?" She Asked.

Last year I wrote a post on fixing minor writing problems called Band-Aids that should be employed during the revision process. I thought of that post recently because I’ve noticed that too many manuscripts I’ve requested in the past few months were rejected for very “Band-Aid-like” reasons, which unfortunately means the writing wasn’t quite good *enough*. (Never an easy rejection to write.)

One issue, however, stood out in particular and I realized it’s not one I covered in my original post: Dialogue.

Dialogue is a tough thing to write, and it’s even harder to write well. Like with the other Band-Aids, I can’t promise a quick fix will solve any larger problems an agent or editor may have with your work. What I can do is make you aware of the most common pitfalls I see when it comes to writing dialogue.

1. Too realistic.
I mean, we all use modifiers before we speak usually. And we don’t always use proper grammar and we begin sentences with conjunctions and we can run on and on and on because, um, we just do, OK? Sometimes we don’t know what to say next, so… we use ellipses to visualize our lack of certainty or add the words “um” and “like,” but um… this is, like, super annoying to read and usually the Very Important Thing your character is trying to say ends up getting buried in the very real way he or she is speaking. So, ya know, cut it out maybe?

As annoying as that was to read, it’s actually how most people – not just teenagers – speak. We all do it. Let’s not pretend otherwise. We all have our bad speaking habits that are hard to break. When writing dialogue, we’re given an opportunity most of us don’t get in real life – we can edit out those bad habits. Using slang, dialect, and other “realistic” speech patterns is all well and good, but be careful not to let it take over the narrative. Readers need to be able to hear what your characters are saying. If they’re well-drawn enough, you won’t need to rely as much on creating realistic dialogue to make them seem real. Don’t delete every “gonna” or “kinda,” but use them sparingly.

Remember that these characters aren’t speaking to us out loud. Our brain has a tendency to demand cleaner language when reading words on the page. We’re more forgiving in person because we can’t physically see the inaccuracies or “um”-like filler. Sometimes being “real” is the same as being “distracting.”

2. Too unrealistic.
This is what I’ll call the Wayne’s World Scenario (watch this clip to see why). For example, lines like:

“I don’t know, Dave, what do you think?”
“My maternal grandmother, Rose, lived in this house since 1927.”
“I haven’t spoken to Chris since he cheated on me with Lindsey. I hope it’s not awkward when we work together on that school project.”

Assuming the above sentences were spoken to someone the character knows, it feels strange that the other person would need so many irrelevant details. The problem with the first example is that most people don’t say the name of the person they’re speaking to unless they want to emphasize something or get their attention. The next two examples are victims of info-dumping. If we, as the reader, need to know specific dates, character relationships, or back-story between characters, it should come out throughout the narrative in a more organic way. Relying on dialogue to convey these types of details feels forced and misplaced.

Dialogue between characters should be fluid and natural, while slowly building the plot. It should not be full of back-story or excessive foreshadowing. Your characters are more than vessels to carry information. They need to be as three-dimensional as your reader is. As I said, dialogue does not need to be 100% realistic, but it does need to be about 90% realistic. Different types of people speak in different ways. Dialogue can be used to show individualism while still being used to advance the story. Let your readers know who your characters are on a level they can relate to so they will care about what they have to say.

3. Too tedious.
Too many times, for lack of a better phrase, characters are just boring when they talk. If I’m left wondering why two characters had a certain conversation, that usually means it can be cut. Dialogue needs to either help develop a character or help develop the plot, preferably both simultaneously. If it does neither, delete it. For example:

“How are you, Mary? What did you do today?”
“Hi Joe. I went to work and then took the kids to dance class.”
“Tell Bob I said hello. See you later.”
“OK. Bye!”

This scene shows that Mary and Joe are friends, possibly neighbors, but how necessary is that exchange to the story? If a piece of dialogue could be explained away with paraphrasing, always paraphrase to something like, They explained pleasantries and then [one of them said something very important to the plot!]. We don’t need to see everything that happens. Books are not real life. Some exchanges can be left to the imagination or simply assumed.

Weak dialogue could make or break an agent’s decision on your manuscript, even if the idea, execution of the plot, and character development is all there. Dialogue is part of the narrative. It’s a key factor in how the book is read and enjoyed. It’s also hard to teach, but hopefully these examples will help if you’re not sure about how to effectively use dialogue in your novel.

PS: To anyone who wants a quick master class in writing dialogue, I suggest doing a close-read of J.D. Salinger’s short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish. There are many reasons to love this story, but one thing I always admired about it is that it’s told almost exclusively in dialogue. Too much dialogue in a row can get taxing to read, but Salinger finds a way to make it work. He’s not only writing chit-chat between a mother and daughter, nor is he creating a conversation full of back-story that diminishes the shocking ending. He makes it work for two reasons – and it’s the two things every writer needs to do no matter what they write: Choose your words carefully and trust your reader to see what’s left unsaid.

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