For readers (and editors), nothing’s scarier than pages full of long paragraphs of text with no dialogue in sight. Dialogue helps break up paragraphs. It pushes the story faster. It helps show characters’ personalities. (And honestly, long paragraphs of text belong in textbooks, and I didn’t read mine when I was in college).
But despite how much readers love dialogue, many aspiring writers struggle to write it effectively. I have mentioned dialogue before in previous posts, so now it’s finally time to talk about it, but before we can talk about how to write great dialogue, we need to discuss what bad dialogue is first.
What is Bad Dialogue?
Bad dialogue makes readers cringe, and once you know what it is, you can easily spot it. I’ve found there are four types of bad dialogue.
1. Characters Sounding the Same:
One very common problem new writers struggle with is giving their characters their own voice. Happy-to-go Lucy should not sound the same as hot-headed George, and the elderly professor should not speak the same as his high school students.
I feel this problem occurs when writers don’t know their characters on a deep personal level or struggle to get inside their heads. The more developed your characters and the more you can immerse with them, the easier it is to write dialogue for all of your characters.
2. Exposition Dialogue:
Usually, I find exposition dialogue in fantasy and sci-fi manuscripts, but it can turn up in any genre. Exposition dialogue is when the characters’ dialogue is full of info dumping, explaining only background information and plot.
The problem with exposition dialogue is that it lacks emotions and personality. I’m not saying that you can NEVER have exposition in your dialogue. Sometimes you need it, but when your characters are only info dumping and explaining plot, they’re acting as plot tools, not characters with feelings, emotions, and personalities.
But the bigger problem with exposition dialogue is that it’s not natural and realistic most of the time. You can spot exposition dialogue if your characters are telling each other information they should already know.
So example, let’s say best friends Jamie and Kerry are chatting, and their conversation goes like this:
“Did I tell you that my older sister, Mary, just got engaged?” Kerry asked. “She and her fiancé, Jerry King, have been dating for three years when she moved to Baltimore and met him when she began her job at International Banking.”
Now, if I were Jamie, I would be wondering, “Why are you telling me all of this? I know already!” If Jamie and Kerry were best friends, Jamie would already know that Kerry has an older sister, her name is Mary, who her fiancé is, where she lives, and probably where she works. Except for the engagement, all of this information shouldn’t be new to her, and therefore, this dialogue is not realistic.
3. Stilted Dialogue:
Some writers seem to have the idea that they have to be formal in their writing, especially in dialogue.
It usually sounds like this:
“Lisa, would you please walk the dogs because, even though I wish I could give them the exercise, I am coming down with a cold and do not have the energy to walk,” Bob said.
Stilted speech is usually when the dialogue is too formal, as you can see in the example. It sounds too much like from the olden days or people in the Bible. This problem also occurs when writers don’t use contractions, slang, curse words, or informal words.
If we take the example up above, natural sounding dialogue would go like this:
“Lisa, please walk the dogs. I’m not feeling well,” Bob said.
4. Clichés and Stereotypes:
We all know that we should avoid clichés. Clichéd dialogue doesn’t develop character. It doesn’t give your characters personality. There are plenty of websites that list clichéd expressions to avoid.
What is Good Dialogue?
Now that I’ve explained what bad dialogue is, now it’s time to talk about good dialogue. There are three components to good dialogue.
As I said up above, bad dialogue doesn’t reflect the character’s personality, and each character doesn’t have his or her own voice. If you have read my Show, Don’t Tell series, then you know that I believe that dialogue is a great way to show personality.
Here are some things to consider when giving dialogue personality:
What is the character’s outlook on life? Is he optimistic and pessimistic? Hopeful or depressed? An optimistic character who had his date canceled will most likely say, “That’s alright. We can go out another night!” versus the pessimistic person who would say, “I bet that %@#@ canceled on me to see some other guy. Whatever. I don’t need her.”
Emotions reflect our personalities, especially the way we channel them in our words. How does your character express his or her emotions? Someone who is normally happy can easily channel her happy emotions. Someone who easily gets angry will have no problem expressing anger.
How do you describe your character? Is she smart? Is she happy-to-go? A character who is intelligent will most likely use big words and complex sentences while a very happy, peppy person will use happy, bubbly language.
Our upbringing shapes our personality. If a character grew up where yelling and cursing was common, it’s likely that she yells and curses at others, while a character who grew up in a quiet family might be shy and doesn’t like to talk.
What are your characters’ interests? A character who love athletics might use language found in sports while someone who love her religious youth group might likely to quote her bible or pastor.
Each character ought to have his or her own voice. Here are some things to consider to help you make your characters sound different from each other:
A five year old will speak differently from a forty-five year old. Every age uses different phrases and words. The time period when your characters grew up also impacts dialogue. Slang from the 80s is very much different from slang in the 2000s.
Our culture affects how we choose our words and who/when to speak with others. Women who live in an oppressive country that prohibits them from working and attending schools will use different language than women who live in a free country. Think how your story’s setting and culture affects your characters’ speech. Even in the United States, someone from Texas speaks differently from someone from New York.
Our careers and fields impact our language choice, and we pick up words and phrases from our jobs. A doctor speaks differently from an elementary school teacher. Even in the same field, different positions can affect dialogue. In a factory, a machine operator will not sound the same as a manager.
Many learn to read and write in school, and some people are in school longer than others. Someone who earned a P.H.D will speak differently from someone who only finished high school.
2. Advancing Plot:
While we want dialogue to sound natural and be realistic, there is some real-life dialogue that does not belong in your story. Every line of dialogue ought to contribute to the plot and conflict.
Look at each line of dialogue. If you take it out, do you lose vital information for the plot? If not, then it’s best to take it out. Anything that is small talk, chitchat, conversational, or lacks anything to do with plot is a waste of space. Pointless dialogue that is just filler is boring, and readers will only skim it.
3. Sounding Natural and Realistic:
The best characters sound like real people; their dialogue is believable. The best way to see if your dialogue is natural is reading it out loud. That’s the best way to catch chunky, awkward lines. If you’re tripping over your dialogue a lot, that is a sign that it needs work.
As crazy as it sounds, one of the best ways to learn how to develop natural dialogue is people watching and eavesdropping. Listen to how people talk and interact with each other, and use what you’ve observed for your writing.
Learning to write good dialogue takes time and practice, but once you master it, dialogue will flow onto the pages.