I was reviewing notes the other day for the creative writing class I teach, and I came across some examples of lousy dialog. These always make me laugh. Dialog is one of those things that some writers get intuitively, and some writers never get at all. There are four major sins in writing dialog: stilted dialog, where the writer has the characters discussing things that each should already know about; lecturing, where the characters speak in paragraphs at each other; talking about talking, where one character tells the reader that a conversation took place but we don’t actually hear what was said (in terms of being able to see it written in dialog format); and tag line overkill, where the writer relies on the tag lines to convey emotion or information rather than letting the dialog do the work.
Stilted dialog goes something like this:
“As you know, Mr. Smith, I missed a lot of work because of having my spleen removed last week.”
“Yes, Helga, and I hope you received those flowers that the whole office chipped in for and sent to St. Norbert’s Hospital for you.”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Smith, the lovely geraniums with the purple thistles. That was so nice, and the card was very amusing.”
The problem here is obvious as the reader moves through the scene: these characters talk as if the information is brand new to them, but yet, they both know exactly what they’re talking about. The purpose of dialog like this is to make sure the reader knows what’s going on. This points at one of two problems: either the writer doesn’t think the information was presented clearly enough the first time, or the writer doesn’t think the reader got the information the first time. Obviously the boss doesn’t need to mention the name of the hospital, Helga knew where she was staying. And any time you see words like “As you know . . .” or “In case you don’t remember . . .” it’s a dead giveaway that the writing doesn’t think you, the reader, have understood what’s happened or what’s being said.
The conversation might seem more realistic if it were to read more like real conversation sounds. Here is one example, though by no means is this the only way to write this exchange:
“Mr. Smith, I wanted to thank you and everyone else for the flowers. They really cheered me up in that horrible hospital room. And the card was very clever. It made me laugh, which hurt, but it was worth it.”
“Well, we’re all just glad you’re doing better after that emergency speenectomy. And if you need any help with your work load, you just let us know.”
“Thank you, sir. I will.”
Nearly the same information is given, but it follows a more natural conversational pattern. The dialog isn’t forcing information on the reader, it’s giving the reader a peek at what’s going on at that moment in those characters’ lives.
Lecturing seems to be what happens when the writer is, again, trying to make sure the reader gets what is being said. It can also happen when the writer is trying to send a message to the reader. In adult literature, lecturing goes something like this:
“Listen, Gloria, I’ve made up my mind to go to Bolivia. You can’t talk me out of it, so don’t even try. I need to do this to prove my theory. I have to show those stuffed shirts at the university that my ideas about the location of Atlantis are valid and that I’m not just some crackpot who thinks unicorns are real, even though I have good evidence to prove it. So stop crying and help me pack. My plane leaves in a few hours and I don’t have time for your histrionics.”
And just what is Gloria doing all this time? Is she angry, sad, supportive? The reader has no idea, yet it is obviously important to the character, so shouldn’t the reader have some clue, too?
In children’s literature when this happens, it is often the older, wiser adult who is trying to impart a message, a lesson if you will, to a younger, less wise character. This approach to writing for kids usually comes from someone who is absolutely certain that he or she has something valuable to tell young people about how hard life is, but if you just stick to it, keep your nose to the grind stone, soldier forth (and other cliche’s) you’ll turn out as wonderfully as the writer did. Kids don’t like being lectured to or talked down to as if they were idiots or that their own experiences were not valid. Stop and think about it: did you like it when adults did this to you as a kid? Kids get enough lecturing from parents, teachers, clergy, older siblings, and other sources. They don’t turn to books to get more.
The problem of lecturing – whether in adult or juvenile fiction – is easily solved. The big block of blah-blah-blah needs to be broken up with some description of what else is happening. Is Gloria wringing her hands? Is she pacing around? Is the speaker frantically packing clothes, dashing around the room? In the case of children’s literature, the block of lecture can be broken down into small bites of insight offered by another character, or can often be eliminated from the manuscript all together.
Talking about talking is typically caused by the author being afraid to write dialog for fear of it sounding either stilted or like a lecture. There are other reasons it happens, too. Many authors try to cut corners or save time in a manuscript by omitting the dialog and just mentioning what was said. This is a form of passive writing, a case of telling instead of showing. One of the most famous axioms in writing is “show, don’t tell.” For all its cliche’, it is true that active language in a story – language that includes dialog, vivid description that isn’t over done, and active verbs instead of passive verbs – is what engages readers in the story.
Here is an example of talking about talking:
“He took my hand and asked me to marry him. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I told him that it was my dream come true, that I wanted to be with him forever. He smiled and told me about all the plans he had for our future. We talked about how we would tell our parents and our friends. We decided to wait for a little while before sharing our good news.”
There is a lot of talking about talking, but no actual dialog takes place. There is also talk about emotions, but none are actually expressed by the characters. Instead, the reader is simply told about them. And there is no action except taking the hand.
A better example, though again not the only example, might be this:
“Hilda,” Beufort said, his voice soft and almost shaking.
My eyes met his and he took my hand in his, holding it so firmly I thought he might break the bones.
“Hilda,” he said again, and his voice squeaked and cracked. “I love you, and I want you to marry me.”
My heart raced to my throat, strangling my voice. “Yeek,” I said. “I mean, yes.” I swallowed hard, trying to push my beating heart back into my chest. “Yes,” I said again with conviction.
Beufort looked like a stunned possum caught in the headlights of a fast car. “Really?”
“You want me to say no?” I tipped my head and looked at him as confusion spread through my brain like fever.
– Okay – you get the idea.
Finally, tag lines. Often times, beginning writers believe that they need to try to pack as much information into the tag line as possible, just in case the reader didn’t really understand what was being said in the dialog. For example:
“Oh, Robbie,” Elnora sighed wistfully. “You take my breath away.”
The problem here is that a sigh is simply an exhalation of breath. It might come with an “ahh,” or a “whew” sound, but it’s really hard to sigh words. Go ahead – try it.
At other times, writers use words like “barked” or “growled” to convey emotion. People don’t bark and growl; dogs do. Not only are these not possible (try barking the words “I love you.”) but they are overused and cliche – done to death.
Watch out, too, for words like “shrieked” or “screamed” or “yelled” because they are often signs that the writer doesn’t think you’ll understand the emotional timbre of the line, so these expressive verbs are added to emphasize the emotions that the writer thinks you should have.
The purpose of a tag line is to mark for the reader who is speaking to whom. Tag lines can be omitted for the most part if there are only two characters speaking. “Said” or “asked” or “answered” or “replied” are considered to be the invisible tag lines, simply marking for the reader who spoke. The reader will skim over these, keeping the flow of the story more intact.
Sometimes tag lines can be replaced with lines that indicate action:
“Can I help you?” Miss Crumbwell sat up straight in her chair as the handsome salesman approached.
“I have an appointment with Mr. Glix at 2 p.m. I’m Thad Goodbody.” He set his briefcase on the desk, then produced a business card from his jacket.
“Indeed,” Miss Crumbwell said. She took the card from him.
The best advice I’ve ever heard for learning to write good dialog – and I’d give credit to the source but I can’t remember when or where I heard this – is to listen to how people really speak with each other. They dove-tail their sentences, one picking up just as the other leaves off. They interrupt each other and speak in incomplete sentences. And there is also a lot of action that takes place. People fidget, they play with keys or pens or pocket lint. People shift their weight, rock on their heels, or roll their eyes. All of this can be used by a good writer to convey mood, emotion, growing or decreasing tension.
Dialog is a key element in story, and learning to do it well is crucial to any writer’s success. It requires listening, practice, and a willingness to let go of what you believe needs to be said so that the story can unfold believably.