Bad dialogue will ruin an otherwise great story. It can rip your reader right out of the setting or create one that feels false. It will kill your pacing by stealing the energy from a scene. Almost all bad dialogue suffers from the same few issues. Don’t fall into these common traps.
For dialogue to sound “right” it needs to mimic actual speech. Consider:
“Good morning, Joan. Looks like you have been here all night. What are you working on?”
She rubbed her eyes. “Just finishing up the calculations for the teleportation ray. The test is scheduled for this morning, and if we don’t get this right, the department of defense will take the contract to our big rival, Trademartin.”
“I’m really worried about the test too. Everyone on our team is.” I gave her my coffee. “Sounds like you need this more than me.”
She took a drink. “Thanks, you are a great friend.”
Ew. That was hard.
Just from reading, you know this exchange stinks, but let us pick it apart and see exactly why.
Why you need Subtext
The characters in this exchange say exactly what they are thinking. In real life, people are not as literal. In real conversations, the meaning is ‘implied’ rather than spoken outright. This is called subtext. The real conversation occurs, not in the words spoken, but the exchange of implied meanings behind those words.
Let’s fix it.
“Morning, Joan. Same outfit, I see.”
She rubbed her eyes. “Ha, I wish. No, just finishing up the calculations on the defense project.”
“You ran them again? I’m insulted.”
She turned the monitor toward me. “Better insulted than unemployed.”
We get all the important information, the two characters are friends, they are on the same team at work, and they are working on an important contract for the department of defense, and none of this is stated directly.
Why info-dumping doesn’t work
These are places where the author uses dialogue in insert backstory or context that the characters are already aware of. These are often called as you know dialogue. The sentence “The test is scheduled for this morning, and if we don’t get this right, the department of defense will take the contract to our big rival, Trademartin,” is a perfect example of as you know dialogue. Both characters in this exchange already know this information, there’s no reason for Joan to restate it. Authors think they are sneaking information into their stories, but readers never fall for the ploy.
Let’s fix it.
She turned the monitor toward me. “Better insulted than unemployed.”
I leaned in to examine her numbers. My mistake became obvious. “Oh, shit.”
“Yeah. Luckily, I caught it.” She rested her chin on top of her curled hand.
“Or we could let it go and buy up some Trademartin stock before the test?”
“Two hours before the test?” She smiled. “Yeah, the FCC wouldn’t find that suspicious.”
This is a much sneakier way to slip information into the dialogue. Characters who know the same information never need to explain that information to each other. Instead, let your characters use it as it would naturally occur in conversation and trust your readers to use the context to puzzle out the meaning.
“Eh? What was that, girl?”
Mr. Avery’s been a sailor all his life, mostly on the guns. Can’t hear a thing anymore.
“Clear and stow,” I shout back at him.
His lips widen and part in what can only be a smile, though he has no teeth to make it a proper one.
“Another victory for the good Captain,” he says.
I dunk the swab in the bucket and shove it into the cannon’s barrel. There’s a small hiss of steam and a whiff of spent powder. Avery ties up the lines. We’re finished in less than a minute. The royal navy is the best in the world.
Although most readers in this book’s target audience wouldn’t be familiar with the nautical term, “clear and stow,” both characters do know. Having Mr. Avery launch into a lengthy description of what our MC needs to do at this time wouldn’t make any sense. Instead the author shows the MC completing the task. This allows the reader to puzzle out what it means to “clear and stow” the cannons.
Keeping dialogue consistant
In good dialogue, characters will have established speech patterns that remain consistent through the entire novel.
Consider this exchange from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.
I removed the beats, but it’s clear which line is Clare and which is Jamie.
“Stop that!” …“Do you want him so drunk he can’t stand up?”
“Feisty wee bitch, is she no?”
While this is an extreme example, you should be able to tell which character is speaking. And this needs to remain consistent through the entire novel. The exception is a character who takes on a different outward persona according to their environment, but this should be explained in the novel.
Good dialogue must be appropriate for the situation
Let us return to Sam and Joan, and their teleportation test isn’t going as planned.
A tiny black dot appeared above the platform, surrounded by a web of distorted air. The waves in the distortion began to organize into a spiral. As is spun, the surrounding objects began to stretch like taffy toward the hole as if all the atoms were slowly being pulled down a drain.
“Is that supposed to happen?” the general asked.
At this point, Sam could begin explaining to the general what should be happening and why what they are seeing is wrong, or…
“Shit, shit, shit. Shut it down! Shut it down!” I lunged for the kill switch.
Joan’s body slammed me to the floor before I could take two steps. “No, this is right. It’s working.”
“What? Are you insane? That’s a black hole.”
She rose slowly and pulled a gun from inside her power suit. “Don’t touch it. It’s perfect.”
In a high-stakes situation, obviously, people wouldn’t take the time to explain things to the noob. Make sure your dialogue is appropriate for the level of energy in the scene.
Can dialogue be too realistic?
Next time you are sitting in the coffee shop writing, (cause I know you’re there) listen to the conversation at the next table. In a real conversation, people use filler words, they start and stop, they let sentences trail away, or they change their minds halfway through. Having some of these elements in your dialogue will help make it sound more authentic, but copying speech exactly will start to get tedious to the reader. Imagine reading dialogue from someone who puts “um” between every sentence, or bits of dialogue that aren’t relevant to the current conflict. Some doctoring of natural speech is allowed.
What about fantasy and historic dialogue?
There is almost no reason for characters in fantasy novels to sound like they are at the Renaissance Fair.
If the story takes place on a completely fantastic world, then we can assume these people would not actually be speaking some ancient form of English. In these cases, modern English is fine. If the story is set in Medieval England, consider that old English is unintelligible to modern English speakers, so being perfectly authentic in this situation isn’t possible. However, having your knight running around using words like “dude” probably won’t work either. As long as you keep contemporary concepts (like electricity) and decade-specific slang words (like bogus) out of your novel, you shouldn’t have any problems creating a historic feel with modern English.
What about novels set in a real historic time period? This will depend on the intention of the work. Consider the TV show Reign. This is set in the Tudor period, but all the dialogue (and many of the colloquialisms) is modern English. This works for this show and even broadens its appeal. However, in Outlander, Gabaldon has her characters speaking authentic dialogue. In this case, dialogue illustrates the contrast between Clare (a modern woman) and the foreign world she finds herself in. If Gabaldon had given her historic characters modern speech patterns, the illusion of time travel would have been lost.
A word about dialogue tags
Every few days the “alternatives to said” pin shows up in my Pinterest feed. For the love of all things holy, do not use this list for anything. (except lining your bird cage) Flashy dialogue tags are the worst. For nearly every instance where a dialogue tag is needed “said” will suffice. You want your dialogue tags to disappear on the page, not draw attention to themselves. Flashy tags pull attention away from your dialogue. This is not what you want.
The two primary tags are “said” and “asked.” These two will vanish on the page, and you never need to worry about overusing them.
The secondary list of acceptable dialogue tags contains words like shouted, whispered, mumbled, muttered, etc. Notice these are all things you can do while speaking. You can’t actually spit dialogue or hiss it. Using one from the secondary list is acceptable when the dialogue cannot carry the complete meaning alone. Consider:
“Asshole,” she muttered. vs. “Asshole,” she shouted.
Which would be the appropriate response for Joan right before her life’s work is tested by the military?
The general looked up and down Joan’s body. “Wow, all that and brains too.”
“Asshole,” she muttered.
As much as she might want to scream at this man, Joan isn’t going to jeopardize her work. If we had used the dialogue tag “said” the reader wouldn’t know if Joan spoke loud enough to be heard, but by using muttered, we know she said it under her breath and only her partner, Sam, heard her. Be intentional with your dialogue tags.
Good dialogue mimics natural speech but doesn’t copy it exactly
Good dialogue must be realistic. It must match the character and remain consistent through the entire story. It must also be appropriate for the situation, and it should never be an excuse to dump information on the reader. By following these simple guidelines, your dialogue will effectively move your story forward, engage your reader, and create an immersive world.
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