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.
With that said, let’s talk about mistake numero uno-
You’ll always have details to add for your story to make sense. This is what we call exposition (duh, right?). What you don’t want to do is write a bunch of “info-dumping” narration that will bore the hell out of your reader.
So, what do you do? No fear! Dialogue to the rescue!
Dialogue can be a creative and effective way to deliver exposition. Be careful though, dialogue is a double-edged sword. It can cut both ways! Wield it sloppily and you’ll only hurt your writing. Take this poorly written 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.”
So, that’s an extreme example, but you get the point. 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 this 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 through the character Carter Burke as he explains everything to Ripley moments after she’s awoken from hypersleep. It’s a plausible scene that sets up the premise for the entire movie. All in a quick conversation between two characters!
But be careful not to be too prosaic. You might run into mistake number two.
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 conversations you have with co-workers. Mostly just boring small talk, right? But in a story, the dialogue can never be boring!
Your 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 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 hiding an ulterior motive. Their dialogue wasn’t just small-talk. It had a purpose. So to should your character’s dialogue.
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.
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 dialogue doesn’t have a purpose then cut it. It’s worthless!
Speaking of things that are worthless, that brings us to our third mistake.
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.
Speaking of selling something, let’s talk about one last dialogue mistake.
Maybe you’re writing fiction to send a message. You believe that antibiotic overuse is the biggest 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 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 soapbox!
So, there are five dialogue pitfalls to avoid. Now all you have to do is give your characters something interesting to say! Easy, right?
Looking for more information?
Most of the research for this post came from James Scott Bell’s, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript.