The first step to learning to write more effective, more authentic dialogue is to slow down and listen to who our characters are in the story they want to tell. There are seven common mistakes we all make from time to time when writing dialogue, and once you’re aware of your tendency to make these mistakes, you can switch direction.
THE JOHN-MARSHA SYNDROME
Even some of the most seasoned writers do this: They have the characters use each other’s names constantly every other line.
“Harriet, do you remember that we’re going out with Elvis and Elaine on Saturday night?”
“Oh, no, Clarence, not Elvis and Elaine. They’re so boring.”
“I know, Harriet, but we made the commitment, so we have to keep it.”
“But Clarence, certainly we can think of something”
“Harriet, that’s not fair to them. They’re our friends and”
“Excuse me, Clarence, they’re your friends. I’ve never liked them.”
You can increase the intensity in a passage of dialogue by using facial expressions and action, as well as the spoken words.
THE ADJECTIVE AND ADVERB ADDICTION
This mistake is about having characters “expostulate,” “proclaim,” “extrapolate,” “summarize,” “elaborate” or “enunciate” sentences instead of simply saying them. The other part of this problem includes having characters “ragingly,” “smilingly,” “gleefully,” “stupidly” and/or “disapprovingly” speak sentences.
This problem is easily fixed by using an action sentence instead of adverbs and/or adjectives to show how a character speaks. “It’s not fair!” Steve expostulated can easily be changed to “It’s not fair!” Steve didn’t agree and just had to convince him otherwise.
“You are so much fun to be with,” Jane said smilingly can easily become “You are so much fun to be with.” Jane smiled. Or “You are so much fun to be with,” Jane said with a smile.
This kind of dialogue can confuse the reader because instead of responding directly to one another, the characters are answering questions that were asked a few paragraphs before or asking questions that have nothing to do with what anyone is presently talking about. The result is that the characters seem like they’re on different planets rather than having a human interaction.
“I have a test on Monday,” Ryan told his dad.
“I can’t remember where I put the batteries.” Mr. Stevens opened a drawer and rummaged inside. “The remote isn’t working. Do you remember where you last saw them?
“I think they were in that one kitchen drawer where we throw everything”
“Oh yeah. I don’t know why I can’t remember where I put stuff.”
“What kind of test?”
THE AS-YOU-KNOW-BOB TENDENCY
This mistake sneaks into our stories when we’re trying to convey information to the reader and want to use dialogue to do it. While dialogue can often be an effective way to reveal background information and is much more interesting than straight narrative, sometimes it just doesn’t sound natural.
“Hey, Lance, I hear you’re taking Erin out tonight.”
“Erin. You know, that girl with the red curls and freckled face, the lean one who wears that pink sweater all of the time”
“the one who lives over on Maple Street by the fire station.”
“Erin. Right, I am.”
“She’s nice, but kind of quiet, and I hear she likes rap music, which is cool. She has nice legs, and I guess she works at the deli downtown…”
In this case, narrative would be a better way to tell the reader about Erin.
THE HO-HUM MOMENTS
This may be the most common mistake in passages of fictional dialoguecharacters talking and not saying anything worth hearing. Dialogue without tension. Dialogue without suspense. Dialogue that doesn’t move the story or scene forward. Dialogue that really doesn’t do anything at all but take up space in the storyvaluable space that the writer could be using to engage the reader at a deeper level of the story.
Characters introducing themselves. Characters saying hello and goodbye in phone conversations. Characters talking about subjects and issues that have nothing to do with the theme you’re wanting the story to convey.
Why? The writer is trying to show us who the characters are and thinks a conversation might help do that. But characterization should take place as the plot evolves. The element of characterization is never enough around which to revolve a scene of dialogue.
Get rid of any dialogue that doesn’t further the plot and theme.
THE PERFECT GRAMMAR PROBLEM
Go ahead; forget everything you’ve learned about grammar. We may try to write using perfect grammar, but we don’t try to talk that way. Not usually. Characters get excited, get mad, get sad, get afraid, and they’re not the least bit worried if they’re using perfect English when communicating their feelings and situations to each other.
“I do not understand why you have that knife in your hand,” Roy said. “Is murder your intent?”
The above is a perfectly diagrammed sentence of stiff dialogue.
“Hey, man, put that knife away!” Roy screamed. “You trying to kill me?”
That’s more authentic, and authenticity is always what you’re striving for when it comes to dialogue.
THE REDUNDANCY ISSUE
Kathy couldn’t see the boat Earl was pointing to on the water.
“I can’t see the boat you’re pointing out, Earl,” she told him.
This mistake is easy to do. We’re setting up the dialogue when we do this. But the dialogue doesn’t need setting up. We can jump into it and bring the reader with us. You might want to scan your dialogue once in a while just to make sure you’re not repeating yourself in both narrative and dialogue.
Try not to feel overwhelmed by all of the “rules.” These guidelines are here to assist you in writing dialogue that will connect with readers, but not to paralyze you so that writing dialogue is a chore. The more you write, the more natural your dialogue will sound.