Dialogue, on its face, should be easy. I mean, it’s just talking, right? We all talk, every day. Shouldn’t crafting impeccable dialogue come naturally? If only it were that simple…
The truth is that dialogue, like all aspects of writing, is an art form unto itself. Writing it effectively can take years to master. Lucky for you, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my writing, and the least I can do is warn you of them. That said, here’s a list of five common dialogue pitfalls.
Much of the research for this post came from James Scott Bell’s, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript.
You have details you need to provide, to your reader, for your story to make sense, but you want to avoid writing “info-dumping” narration. What do you do? No fear! Dialogue to the rescue!
Dialogue can be a creative and effective way to deliver exposition, but it’s a double-edged sword. Wield it sloppily and you’ll only hurt yourself. Take the following passage:
“Did you bring the spear?” Dan asked.
“You mean the Spear of Destiny used to pierce Jesus’s side as he died on the cross, blessed by his holy blood, the only weapon forged that can vanquish the spawn of Satan?” Bob replied.
Dan nodded. “Yes, will need it in our forthcoming battle with the antichrist.”
The problem here is that Dan and Bob are saying things for the benefit of the reader rather than interacting in a natural way. Your characters should reveal important details casually, like this:
In the clip, from Aliens, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon was presented with a problem. How to inform the audience of Ellen Ripley’s fate after the events of the previous movie. He also needed to clue us in on a time-jump of almost sixty years between the plots of the two films.
This information could be presented in an opening title card, but that would be boring and lazy. Instead, O’Bannon found a way to insert the needed exposition through dialogue.
He does this by having the character of Carter Burke explain everything to Ripley moments after she’s come out of hypersleep. It’s a plausible scene that sets up the premise for the entire movie. All in a quick conversation between two characters!
Dialogue that Mirrors Reality
Stories and reality are not the same. If they were, we would all be either insanely bored at the movies, or constantly having to deal with time-travel or vampires in our daily lives.
Your dialogue shouldn’t conform too closely with real-world conversation, either. Think about it. How often are your interactions with co-worker’s more than just banal, small-talk meant to pass the time? Almost never, I bet, but in a story, the dialogue can never be boring!
In a story, dialogue should only sound real. Meaning, you shouldn’t have two characters talking about the weather unless that weather is a hurricane that’s a threat to both their lives. Which brings us to our next mistake…
Dialogue that Serves No Purpose
Have you ever had a conversation that was overly nice? One day a friend spots you in the mall, wearing your gym clothes. They wave you down and say something like this:
“Debra! Look at you! I love those sneakers you’re wearing! And that dingy, white v-neck! So daring! I wish I had your eye for fashion!”
At this point, you’re probably pretty flattered. And then they hit you with it- the ask:
“By the way, can I get a favor? My car was towed. Do you mind if I borrow your phone to call an Uber… on your account? Sorry! Funds are a little tight this month.”
Suddenly, you realize that your friend’s gregarious nature was laced with an ulterior motive. Their dialogue wasn’t just small-talk. It had a purpose. So to should your characters’.
In a story, words are meant to progress the character’s agenda. And all characters should have an agenda. Sometimes that agenda is small. A character may want to strike up a conversation with the cute girl/guy, in the office, whom they’ve been pining over for months.
Other Times, their motives could be life-changing. Your character might be a doctor who has to deliver the news to their patient that he only has months to live.
Either way, a character’s words should have a motive behind them. A reason for your character to say what they are saying. If they don’t then cut them out, they’re worthless!
Extraneous Dialogue Tags
Here’s an easy one. When a character makes a statement it’s ‘said.’ Not exclaimed, not mumbled, not uttered, not whispered, not yelled, not chattered, not any of those things!
Listen, I know your high school English teacher told you that word variety was the spice of life, but dialogue tags are the exception to that rule. If your character is angry then make it known, but show it through their tone, their deeds, their decisions.
Dialogue tags are meant to clarify which character is speaking. They are not meant to convey actions nor sell an emotion.
Maybe you’re writing fiction to send a message. You believe that antibiotic overuse is the number one threat facing humanity, and you need to get the word out. So, you’ve done the most sensible thing… You’ve written a screenplay.
That’s all fine and dandy, but for the love of your reader, don’t make your protagonist spend five minutes monologuing about the dangers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. You’re writing a story, not a sermon. If you have a theme, reveal it through the action and subtext, and get your characters off the damn soap box!
So, there are five dialogue pitfalls to avoid. Now all you have to do is give your characters something interesting to say! Easy, right?