Diagnosing Dialogue Disasters

Writers don’t set out to create bad dialogue for their characters; in fact, most of us try to edit our way out of potential dialogue disasters but let’s face it, we’ve all read or heard some pretty cringe worthy examples.  Bad dialogue can undermine your story, make your characters look boring or stupid, and even alienate your audience. So the question is how do you create effective, engrossing dialogue?

Consider the following about the dialogue in your story either as you’re writing your draft or editing it:

  • What is the purpose?

If your dialogue is not advancing the plot, adding depth to characters, helping to develop theme(s), or relevant it’s time to put on the brakes and reconsider what you’re trying to accomplish.

  • Is this how human beings really interact?

Overly harsh? Maybe but easy trap that a lot of writers fall into is an over reliance of characters constantly saying each others names.    Titanic anyone?

  • Tone?

Have you ever quickly written an email or text that in your head sounded one way but its tone was interpreted another way by the person who received it?  This can turn awkward in a hurry.   The same applies when you’re crafting dialogue for your characters.  Much like a bad line reading in a film, if the tone your dialogue conveys doesn’t match a character’s actions or motivations you’re likely to leave your audience wondering.

  •   Is this clunky sounding or is it just me?

Is your dialogue concise and to the point or overly wordy and repetitious?  It doesn’t always sound that way on the page but try to speak it or record you reading the lines.

  • Flow?

As human beings we expect a certain order and flow to our conversations.  We don’t tend to go back and summarize what two people are already mutually aware of, so why do we make our characters do so?  Organically reminding the audience about important information is one thing but interrupting the flow of a conversation between characters to do so is lazy and will make them sound as if they’ve suffered sudden memory loss.

  • Do you know how to K.I.S.S. ?

Keep it simple, seriously.  Throwing in a bunch of unnecessary jargon or showing that you know how to use the Thesaurus to find big words might sound impressive to you but it can often lead to poor dialogue and characterization.

Aside from asking these questions here are a few more tips to help you become more confident about writing dialogue:

1. Write a play or screenplayWhat? I’m a novelist.  Yes, but both play and screenplay writers specialize (or should) in creating concise, purpose driven dialogue.  They must advance the story and characters through the dialogue on the page and they can’t take two hundred pages to do it.  Even if you’re not an aspiring playwright it is worth your time as a creative exercise.

2. Find examplesSeek out the good, the bad, and the ugly (written or spoken) when it comes to scenes of dialogue.  Writers have their own styles.  The more examples you investigate the larger knowledge base you have to work off of when you’re creating your own. 

3. Is there a class for that? There are numerous writing programs, workshops, and classes both online, at colleges, or hosted local organizations that focus specifically on helping authors create solid dialogue.  Many also give you the opportunity to share material you’ve already created so you can receive feedback.  Be proactive and see what is available either in your area or online.