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Stilted Dialogue

Considering dialogue from a book proposal standpoint.
by Jeff Gerke

Poor dialogue is something you must not have in your submission package if you want agents and editors to keep reading and not toss your proposal on the reject stack. I know editors who will skip everything else in a proposal, go straight to the first section of dialogue they can find, and begin reading.
In order for dialogue to work in a novel, it must be realistic, layered, and right for the character and the moment.
Unrealistic dialogue is what I like to call dialogue that is on the nose:

“My, Jenny, you are looking chipper today.”
“Yes, Charles, I am chipper. And would you like to know why?”
“Yes, I would like to know why you are chipper today. Please tell me.”
“Thank you. I will tell you. I am chipper because of my aunt.”
“Your aunt? How does your aunt make you chipper?”
“Oh, Charles, you are silly. My aunt makes me chipper because she is here.”
“I am not silly. And I did not know your aunt was here.”

Blah, blah, blah. One of the (many) possible forms of unrealistic dialogue is dialogue in which characters politely take turns and answer exactly what each other says, like Charles and Jenny. A more realistic exchange would go something like this:

“My, Jenny, you’re looking chipper today.”
“Oh, yeah? Hmm. I guess it’s because of my aunt.”
Charles’s forehead wrinkled. “Wait, your Aunt Gillespie?”
“Nope. Charles, Aunt Gillespie’s been dead two years.”
“Oh.”
She shrugged. “Anyway, it’s my Aunt Elaine. It always cheers me up when she comes.”
“How so?”
It’s still not an exchange that is going to make it into a book about stellar dialogue, but at least it feels more realistic.
Good dialogue is also layered. In theater, it’s called subtext. Actors learn not only their lines, but the intent behind the lines. One benefit of this is that if they forget the actual lines when they’re onstage, they’ll be able to ad lib something that amounts to the same thing.
In good dialogue, dialogue with subtext, the characters aren’t responding to what the other person says, but to what they think the other person means:

“My, Jenny, you’re looking chipper today.”
She growled. “I haven’t been drinking, all right?���
Charles looked surprised. “Hey, I wasn’t going to bring it up. But since you did …”
“My, Charles,” Jenny said in a mocking tone, “you’re looking less stupid today.”
He laughed. “At least stupid is something you’re born with.”
She spun to him. “As opposed to what?”
“You know.”

Or whatever. Dialogue like this feels realistic. When was the last time someone said something to you like, “Looks like you got a lot accomplished today” and you didn’t think What is she really saying? Give your dialogue subtext, and it will be easier for agents and editors—and readers—to love your novel.
Finally, be sure your dialogue is right for your character and right for the moment. One of the surest ways to show you may not be ready for prime time as a novelist is if your characters feel shallow and undifferentiated. More about that in the next chapter, but for now just understand that characters speak differently based on who they are and what situation they find themselves in.

“Mm. Help you, I can.”

Can you identify that character? (It’s Yoda from the Star Wars movies.) How he speaks identifies him. Now, you don’t have to invent a new syntax for each of your characters. But if Yoda suddenly went from “How you get so big, eating food of this kind?” to “Excuse me, darling, but your chapeau has been left on the divan,” you’d blow your reader’s believability in your characters and his faith in your writing. Make sure your characters’ dialogue is right for who they are.
Also, be sure your characters’ dialogue is right for the moment. If you’ve got two characters swimming out to sea to rescue someone, their conversation shouldn’t look like this:

“Now, Thomas, when we approach the swimmer, we must do so with extreme caution. I shall attempt to maneuver behind him and affix my arms about him in a forceful, decisive manner to communicate that I am taking the lead in the moment.”
“Very well then, Sebastian. I shall observe and assist as necessary.”
To seem real, it would probably go something more like this:
“Stay back,” Sebastian said, spitting out seawater. “I’m gonna … get behind … grab him.”
“What?”
“Got to be … firm.” He gasped heavily.
Thomas wondered if Sebastian had the strength for this. “You sure?”
“Yeah. Got to show him … who’s in charge.”
“Okay, good. I’m here.”

Great dialogue may not get you a publishing contract, but lousy dialogue will often prevent you from getting one. Awkward, unrealistic dialogue is a common reason acquisitions editors and agents will decline the opportunity to publish your novel.

**Excerpted from The First 50 Pagesby Jeff Gerke

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