Let’s talk about dialog

Speech bubbles. Dialog can be some of the most fun and most frustrating parts of a story to write. From great one-liners to game-changers (those things said in the heat of the moment we just know we can’t take back), dialog brings a story to life and helps move the action forward. And good dialog is essential for good writing — characters need the chance to tell their stories in their own voices; to learn important things about other characters from them; even to learn important things about themselves by talking to other characters. But sometimes, dialog can feel like the author talking — or worse, preaching — directly to the readers as opposed to the characters having a conversation. Often, writers don’t even realize they’re doing this. Today I’m going to share some of the most common problems I see with dialog, and tips for how to spot and fix them.

1. Saying too much

Sometimes I’ll come across dialog and think, “Nobody would ever talk like that!” These are the sentences that are too formal, too wordy, or too elevated. Would Bob really tell Sally, “If you continue to pick at your scab I shall throw this pristine, first-edition Proust at you so that you will have an even bigger scab to worry about”?  First of all, we probably already know Bob is holding a pristine, first-edition Proust, because it’s important either to him or to Sally. So he wouldn’t need to spell it out for us. (And if it’s not important, there’s no need for him to mention it.) Bob is also angry, so he probably won’t spend so much time explaining his thoughts. “Quit picking your scab or I’ll throw Proust at you. Then you’ll have something to pick at!”

2. Not enough contractions

We’re taught never to use contractions in formal writing, but fiction is different. Fiction is telling a story, and dialog is telling a story in someone else’s words. When you’re talking with a friend or family member, you’re less likely to say, “I felt awful when I realized I had lost the dog. I still have not found him, and I do not know where else to look. What will I do when Jane comes home, looking for Skippy?” This sounds stilted and formal. But when we swap in some contractions, the tone becomes more conversational. “I felt awful when I realized I’d lost the dog. I still haven’t found him, and I don’t know where else to look. What’ll I do when Jane comes home, looking for Skippy?”

3. Class is in session

I think of this as a cousin to “As you know, Bob” dialog (in which one character proceeds to tell another something both of them already know so that the reader can learn about it). In this case, one character tells another something he or she doesn’t know, but says it in a way that sounds like a teacher giving a lecture. I see this most often in fantasy, when a character explains something about the world, such as a kingdom’s history or the way that magic works. It usually looks like a big block of text, and sounds like the author explaining this really cool thing in lots of detail, rather than one character telling another just what he or she needs to know. To fix this, try breaking it up by having the other character react or ask questions, and think about even cutting some of the details. (I know, that epic saga about how the kingdom was founded may be really cool, but if only a small part of it will affect the characters and their goals, then they (and readers) don’t need the whole story.)

4. Everyone sounds the same

If dialog tags are the only way for readers to tell who’s talking, your characters don’t sound distinct enough yet. People have different speech patterns based on where they come from (hometown, cultural background, social class, etc.), their personalities (a more reserved character is more likely to end a fight with one or two choice words, while an outgoing character might launch into a diatribe because his roommate left his shoes in the middle of the living room again), and even whom they’re addressing (people address the clerk at the grocery store differently than they do their friends or family members). If all your characters sound the same, try writing some scenes from different points of view to get inside their heads. For me, the easiest way to develop a character’s voice is to write his or her journal entries, letting the character tell me his or her backstory or thoughts on a situation or another character.

These problems aren’t always easy to spot. For me, the best way to catch awkward dialog is to read the piece aloud. Your eyes may skip over stilted speech, but if you hear it, you’re more likely to make note of it. For added fun, try reading scenes with a friend, with each of you playing the part of a different character. Another set of ears will help you catch even more — especially if that friend is also a writer!

What problems do you encounter with dialog? What do you do to fix them?

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