Dialogue is one of those elements that can make or break your story. It’s also one of those things that it’s really hard to get right….in part because many writers don’t know (or won’t hear) they are getting it wrong. Don’t be one of those writers!
Why Your Dialogue is Terrible
There are all sorts of reasons why your dialogue might suck. If it’s your first draft, I don’t really care. My dialogue is not great in draft one–but that’s not where it needs to shine. I’ve got room to polish those words so they drive the mission of the story.
Not sure what your dialogue needs to do? You’re not alone.
I’ve read far too many polished stories with snoozy dialogue to know that many writers either don’t know how to write good conversations or don’t know what the goal of a conversation is in within a scene.
When you know why your work has dialogue, you can begin to see where you’re veering off and course-correct.
The Power of Good Dialogue
You know what good dialogue can do – even if it’s only at the subconscious level. Good dialogue can:
make a quirky character come to life
get your reader on your character’s side from page one (or whenever they open their mouth)
establish the witty banter of a budding romance
give those game-changing moments the emotional heft they really deserve
push the plot forward in scene (show don’t tell)
give your readers a reason to care (so they keep reading)
Bad dialogue can prevent your reader from caring about your characters and connecting to your work. It can prevent your work from getting published in the first place. And it can be the tell of a writing amateur.
5 Ways to Write Better Dialogue
Here we go. Five quick fixes for bad dialogue, based on 5 common mistakes writers make.
1. Dialogue as backstory
Dialogue as backstory is when your character is delivering a running commentary on all the context a reader, let’s be honest, probably doesn’t need to know and if they do need it, they don’t need it in dialogue. Here’s an example.
“Where are we going?” Jane asked. “And do we really need to run there?”
“Hurry!” Richard yelled, stumbling over a root. “If we don’t make it to the train station, then we’ll lose him. The train leaves in five minutes, we’ve gotta pick up the pace. And that means that the guy who ripped off my uncle Bob and tried to frame him for embezzling the country will get away with all the money!”
“Do you have proof?”
“Yup. That’s why we have to get there now.”
Jane stopped. “Not if I call in a bomb threat. I can stop the train.”
Do we need to know that Uncle Bob is in trouble? And that Richard can save the day? Yes, but not in a conversation.
Quick fix: Use bits of dialogue in a scene that shows their race to the station and how they save Bob.
Quick fix: Dispense with the race to the train station in a few sentences and take us back to the moment when Robert discovered the con, using vivid, detail-rich flashback. Or just cut straight to the train station scene. Your pick.
2. Meaningless dialogue
“How was your day?” Jane asked.
“Uh,” Richard groaned. “So many meetings. I’m wiped.”
“Well dinner’s ready.”
“Great, what are we having?”
So boring! I don’t want to have these conversations, I don’t want to read them, and they don’t tell me anything about the characters unless, say, Jane is hiding an escaped con in the kitchen and is trying to pretend everything is super normal even though the con man has a gun pointed at her head.
And if that was the case, you would probably show some of that detail.
Quick fix: If your dialogue is not serving the plot, cut it out. All of it!
Robert slammed the door. “Jane! Ay, I can’t believe it. I had to spend the entire afternoon on the phone fixing mistakes that Reggie made, because my dumbass boss wouldn’t fire Reggie because she felt sorry for the shmuck. Cause his wife has cancer. Can you believe that? Like, all the rest of us are supposed to do our job and his because she is too afraid to do what needs to be done for the good of the company. Even though it’s costing us money, like you wouldn’t believe.”
Bla, bla, bla. If your character is ranting and raving, even if it feels like it’s for a good reason, your reader will skim past the conversation the same way that, if you were trapped at a cocktail party with Robert, you would find a way to go freshen up your drink before the poor guy finished his diatribe about how overworked he is.
Quick fix: Pare out what doesn’t need to be said. Shave down the rant to its essence to show the core nugget here: Robert’s overworked, he’s stressed, and from the anger in his tone, he’s about to blow.
Quick fix: Break up the monologue by showing what Robert and Jane are doing. Have him start talking while he takes off the coat, walks by the dog who’s bouncing in excitement to see him, gives Jane a chaste kiss on the cheek, etc, etc. Action will save the conversation from feeling like a monologue.
4. Fussy dialogue tags
If you have to get out the thesaurus, you’re doing it wrong.
“Jane!” Robert exclaimed.
“Yes dear?” Jane queried.
“We need to rescue Uncle Bob. He’s in trouble,” Robert ejaculated.
“Are you sure?” Jane wondered.
“I just discovered he was framed and the criminal is about to get away,” Robert revealed.
Quick fix: When in doubt, just use said. Every. Damn. Time. Readers will skim past it and note even note it, but they’ll note (and tired of) all your precious replacements.
5. Neverending conversations
Say Jane and Bob are hosting a dinner with the now-rescued Uncle Bob. How much of the conversation needs to be on the page?
Not the whole thing. Not most of it. Only what’s important. What advances the plot.
So that could be Bob’s excited retelling of the foiled escape where he and Jane are talking over one another, giggling, reliving the caper. Or it could be Bob and Robert’s whispered kitchen conversation over whether the bad guy is going to come back and if so how they can protect Jane.
You know what’s important and if you don’t, you’ve got bigger problems.
Writing dialogue is a muscle. You get better with practice. So if you’re guilty of some of these bad dialogue mistakes (*raises hand) forgive yourself, learn to see where you’re ruining an otherwise good story, fix it, and get out of your way.
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