Polishing Your Prose, Part 4: How to Avoid Bad Dialogue


"How are you?"
"I'm fine. How are you?"
"Doing well, thanks. I am just heading to the store to pick up some dinner."

While this might sound like a normal conversation between two people speaking in real life, no one wants to read this type of dialogue in a book. Why? Because it's horribly boring. The only reason you would include something like the above in your book is if you wanted your readers to fall asleep after the first page. 

In fiction--and nonfiction--writing, your characters will come alive when they speak. And bringing them to life is not an easy feat. Luckily, bad dialogue is relatively easy to spot...as long as you know what you're looking for.

1) Resist the urge to explain

This is a common occurrence in manuscripts I edit: 
"What do you mean?" he asked, confused. 

The problem in this case should be obvious. You ask a question because you need clarification...because you're confused. So there's no need to add the word confused.

Or how about this: "I hate you," she said angrily. 

Just don't do this. Ever. The dialogue itself implies anger. There's no need to add a tag explaining that the speaker is saying this in anger. Also, notice the use of the -ly adverb angrily. Adverbs are rarely suggested in conjunction with dialogue. When you use narration to explain your dialogue, it tells a reader you don't have enough trust. First, you don't trust the reader to be smart enough to infer meaning from the dialogue, and you also don't trust your dialogue to speak for itself. 

Renni Browne and Dave King, authors of the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, have this to say: "[Explaining your dialogue] is lazy writing. When your dialogue is well written, describing your characters' emotions to your readers is just as patronizing as a playwright running onto the stage and explaining things to your audience" (84). 

2) Use contractions

Of the following, which sounds better: 
"Please do not touch my stuff. I would like you to leave."
"Please don't touch my stuff. I'd like you to leave."

Hopefully you said the second sentence sounds better. This is a simple concept, but it's one I feel is important for writing dialogue that sounds like something a real person would say.

Using full phrases instead of contractions where a normal speaker would combine two words is jarring and unnatural. The only reason to not use contractions in dialogue is when you purposely intend for a character to sound stiff or "uppity." But then, as your character evolves over the course of the book, they might start to loosen up. One way you can show that is in the dialogue and use of contractions and also word choice. Dialogue is an excellent way to subtly weave in character description.

3)  Read your dialogue out loud

There are so many things I could say about dialogue, but the final tip I'll leave you with is simple: before you publish it--whether it's on a blog or in a book or a story or anywhere--make sure you read it out loud and in monotone. Don't add your own inflection to the dialogue and just listen to how it sounds when the words are speaking for themselves (note: not literally, though!).

Even better yet, have someone read the dialogue to you. If the dialogue doesn't sound right--if the words don't flow well together and it sounds choppy; if it's boring--revise it. Remember: written dialogue is not the same thing as transcribing a real-life conversation. Instead, it's "a semblance of speech, an inverted language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes" (Sol Stein, Stein on Writing, 111).

Written dialogue is not language as you hear it at the grocery story or at work. It's a new language, a creation all of your own where you can bring your characters to life. Just be careful, because bad dialogue is a quick killer of both characters and readers.

"I am serious," she said seriously.
Anonymous said...

Good post. Soooo glad you included the part about reading it out loud. That is the most important tip, in my opinion. At the very least, it's the quickest way to help a writer understand why the dialogue doesn't work. Good post. Nice length this time too! (I know, I know, pot & kettle and all that jazz)


LeAnna said...

I like that you're doing these posts. I'm one of those people that wish they were a writer, but basically are the farthest thing from one! I ALWAYS feel the need to explain everything I write and it makes it very difficult to be creative. And by writing, I totally mean blogging and not emails because I have yet to reply to yours.


Yeah. I'll do that at nap time today. Lord willin' and if the creek don't rise. ;)