"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.

21 thoughts on “"Is This Meaningful Dialogue?" She Asked.

  1. Great advice. I think we often overlook the “too realistic” element. But you're right. The last thing we need to do is create a place where readers stop and stumble over our words. Off to look at my manuscript–again.


  2. Yeah, I'm not saying Joss Whedon is a bad writer. I think he's a very good writer. Of course he thinks about these things deeply. But the final product, to me, is flat-line. As far as the dialogue goes. (And I'm speaking as a writer who has the same problem.) Also, it's been so long since I've watched Buffy — I was thinking about Firefly more.


  3. They have similar speech patterns because that's what generally happens within a group of family-style-close friends. And everything he does is about that kind of friendship. But he's very, very conscious of the difference between a Xander line and a Willow line, for example. He's re-written entire scenes over it, and some of my favourite jokes were when one character said something that clearly demonstrated the influence of another character's sense of humour, but for it to work, the other characters had to be surprised and slightly uncomfortable about it. There's also some interesting examples of characters who never *quite* fit into the speech patterns of their respective groups, which says so much about their relationship to the others and/or their ultimate trajectory (Faith, Drusilla, Giles, River, Simon, Book).


  4. Excellent advice, all of it. Several years ago I met an amateur actress who convinced me to try to write a ten-minute play. She challenged me to write it with only the barest minimum of stage direction. I recommend this as an exercise for anyone who struggles with dialog, especially with making sure it moves the plot forward and reveals character while carrying the tension of the scene. At the time, I found a terrific web site that also talked about story structure and other things. I can't find that site today, but I found this page instead which is also pretty useful:

    That one exercise taught me how to eliminate superfluous and cardboard characters, how to move an entire story through only dialog, how to keep the story fresh in a single setting (i.e. not adding a new scene to create a false sense of movement when the plot is actually stale), and many other lessons. (Poetry and flash fiction teach similar but other lessons, and I recommend those as growth exercises as well.)


  5. Great advice. I think the information dump in dialogue is one of the hardest to avoid, though the point about making dialogue so realistic it's awkward to read is well-taken, too. Thanks for giving me something to think about.


  6. Thanks, Sarah, for the tips how to write good dialogues. You tip about writing dialogues with “different types of people speak in different ways” is the most difficult.


  7. Yeah, I completely disagree with that. :-/

    They're different characters, sure, speaking from different life experiences, but they all for the most part talk the same.


  8. Good post. I do always notice that I say people's names more now when I talk and sometimes I wonder if that is the writing in me trying to make it legit.


  9. But Joss's characters don't “sound the same.” Yes, they have similar speech patterns, use similar phrases, etc., but they don't necessarily have the same voice.


  10. I've noticed some of my characters just say people's names more. It's who they are, an aspect of their megalomania. (I swear there's a megalomaniac in everything I write.) I used to edit it out until I realized it wasn't me being a bad writer, for once.

    I love it when a character says the opposite of what they mean.


  11. Thanks for the post. It seems dialogue is just one of those things I have the most trouble in because I'm always afraid the voices are all the same. So to make up for it a throw in a bunch of slang in accordance to the character and…yeah, it's a bit annoying to the people that read my work.

    Thanks again!


  12. This post, and the link to the one about Band-Aids, has excellent timing, as I'm just starting my revisions! I love the posts about the nitty-gritty of craft, so thank you.


  13. I always wondered about that, too, until someone in film I was acquaintances with told me it's wasted seconds in a movie. So they just omit it. I think only people who think about dialogue notice 🙂


  14. I really appreciate this advice. I love writing dialogue, and think I'm pretty good at it — but there are times when I definitely strive for “realism” at the cost of other necessities, and for some reason I still fall into the trap of the characters occasionally saying each other's names.
    One thing I would add is the “transcription” tendency I (and I suspect other writers) have sometimes — creating a conversation that may be realistic and dramatic but still falls flat, because it's juts dialogue. In “The Language Instinct” Steven Pinker has a section in which he shows why transcriptions of crucial conversations, such as the Watergate tapes, are hard to understand. It's partly because of the point you make — all the natural uhs and ums and incomplete statemtents, which are dsitracting on the page; but I think it's also because it ignores all the physical action and body language that, in any scene or situation, tells you as much if not more about what is happening between the people than their words do. And of course, in theatre, where the actors have only the dialogue to work with, the greatest moments are often created when the actors make it clear what is being said is different or even the total opposite of what is being said.
    Sorry to go on at such length. Loved this post, and I will definitely read up on the Band-Aids post as well!


  15. I've noticed lately in movies people never say goodbye on the phone. I have a whole goodbye routine I go through so my friend doesn't think I'm pissed. In movies, you hang up when you're done. They understand.


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