How Strong is Your Dialogue? How to Fix Common Dialogue Problems
For my regular peeps, you probably know about my favorite
hostage guest contributor, blogger Alex Limberg. Today, he shines his spotlight at some basic dialogue problems we all know in one form or another.
Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools for storytelling. Dialogue is the difference between a cast of talking heads versus characters so real they are more alive to us than even people we know. Dialogue is the engine of plot, and coolest thing is?
We can mess with the reader’s emotions more than that crush in high school. But, though it seems so simple to use? It’s far from it.
So without further ado…take it away, Alex!
Here is the crazy thing about dialogue: It’s just pure, blunt, in-your-face words. With dialogue, there is no filter in between your characters and the reader.
When you describe an action, a setting or what your character thinks or feels, you, the author, are in the role of the messenger. You convey what is happening to the reader with your own words. Everything the reader senses, she senses through you.
But with dialogue, it’s very different.
When in your story little Bobby asks: “What’s bigger, the world or everything?” the reader will read exactly that phrase, “What’s bigger, the world or everything?” It’s like Bobby is talking right next to your reader’s ear, and you, the wicked author, are sitting in another place far away.
That straight-on nature makes it so hard to make dialogue lines sound good (well, it’s hard to make anything sound good in fiction writing, okay, okay, but mind you, this post is about dialogue…).
With dialogue, there is no place to hide.
No dense jungle of overgrowing language to cover you.
No big, solid rock of a character to overshadow your clumsiness.
No flashy action from another direction to distract the reader.
Nothing but the reader watching your dialogue like a hawk, coming down on your soft words mercilessly with his sharp peak, ripping your writer’s confidence apart… Ok, I’m getting carried away here, but you get the picture!
Especially when you start out, your dialogue will often sound clumsy. But it doesn’t have to be. Here are four basic mistakes almost everybody makes in the beginning stages of their writing – and how to avoid them and make your dialogue sound really smooth.
Just take care of these four things, and you have come a long, long way towards interesting and real dialogue.
And because I know dialogue flaws are often hard to detect for the writer himself, you can download a free goodie here to check your dialogue. It uses test questions, and you can also use it to make all other parts of your story tight and exciting.
1. All of the Characters Sound Like You
Newbie writers often let their characters talk however the sentences pop up in their, the writer’s, head. They don’t filter the dialogue lines through the character’s unique personality. Of course, all of the figures now talk like the writer himself.
With a little practice, that’s quite easy to avoid.
Think about who your characters are, one by one: What’s his age and sex? How did she grow up? What are his values? What’s her temper? What’s his personality?
When you really get into your characters’ heads, you will see that every single one of them demands totally different talk. They all use different vocabulary, different length of sentences, different power of expression, etc…
Mild-mannered Lady Bumblebee, who grew up on a castle, might say: “Would you be so kind as to give me notice for how much longer we have to ascend this questionable mountain?” Whereas hands-on lumberjack Burt, straight out of the woods, might say: “Damn! No end to that $%&* slope!”
Avoid making all the characters talk like you do.
2. The Dialogue is Filled with Commonplaces
Nobody reads fiction to see trivial phrases. In real life, a good part of what we speak consists of salutations, compliments, good wishes and other formulas. But in fiction, that’s annoying and a bore. Can you imagine how your audience would feel reading a scene beginning like this:
“Good morning, dear!” – “Good morning, darling!” – “Did you sleep well?” – “Yes, and you?”
They would feel bored, really bored.
In screenwriting, there is a rule that says “Get into the scene at the latest possible moment and out at the earliest possible moment.” In fiction, that rule is not so strict, because fiction readers can handle a pace that’s a bit slower. But keep in mind that you should always have a reason for every sentence you write.
Superfluous words in a good story are like too much fat on a delicious steak – nobody needs it.
So what can you do?
Your first option is to just cut the formulas, nobody will miss them.
Your second option is to pack them into interesting, plot-driven dialogue, so they will seem like a natural byproduct and readers won’t notice. Take a look:
“Good morning, dear! Have you seen Georgie?”
“Oh my god, he should have been sitting on his high chair. Maybe he has sneaked outside, I’m gonna run and catch him. Good morning, darling!” [kisses him on cheek]
Avoid boring your readers with trivialities.
3. Your Characters Speak Logically, Not Emotionally
If the characters in your story always reply exactly “on point” to what the other one just said, your dialogue will feel very constructed.
In the real world, us humans talk first and foremost from our emotions. Our answers are often just emotional reactions deeply colored by our personalities; they are not precise, to the point replies.
Imagine one part of a couple asking the other one to go walk the dog. A logical reply would be something like: ”It’s your turn today, honey; I did it yesterday.”
But let’s make that character answer according to her feelings. She would say something like: “Why is it always me who has to walk the dog?” (annoyance) “Always the same old story!” (anger) or “And you want me to pick up the slippers for you too?” (with a slight grin; annoyed amusement)
You can make your dialogue vivid and realistic by letting your characters talk after their feelings, not after logic.
Avoid too “correct” and stilted dialogue.
4. Boring. Boring. Boring. Your Dialogue is Just Boring.
Even if all the characters have their unique voices, your dialogue will also have to follow its primary purpose: To entertain!
Maybe you and your characters are just reciting the program of the plot too mechanically. Maybe there are no quirks, no detours, no fun, no suspense.
How can you solve this problem and inject something interesting?
For one, make sure your characters fully show off their personalities. The more they express their thoughts and feelings, the more material you will have to insert interesting bits of “dialogue within the dialogue.”
You can keep your dialogue juicy by introducing little “side topics.” Say the scene is about a guy buying a gun. Within the dialogue between him and the shop assistant, he gets sidetracked and enthusiastically depicts his new pink whirlpool to the assistant.
Remember, small detours can be entertaining, but they have to add something, be it suspense or fun. And they have to stay small and not take over the dialogue.
Avoid dull conversation in your scene.
Wow Your Reader With Intriguing Dialogue
You can often see these four typical mistakes in dialogues. With a little practice and a watchful eye though, you will eliminate them from your writing forever and craft dialogues so thrilling and authentic, your reader will swallow them like cotton candy.
Your characters will take on a life of their own and your audience will be swept away by their struggles and will just have to keep on turning the pages.
Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Write gripping dialogue with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story (contains a to-the-point checklist to test every aspect of your story). Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and on movies. He has lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.
So what do you have to say to all of this?
Which character was the most difficult to get to talk for you so far? When your characters open their mouths, is it a pleasant experience? Do they dare to copy each other’s dialogue? Do they have the right to remain silent? Will you use anything they say or do against them in a court of law? If they can’t afford an attorney, will one be appointed to them? Do they have good breath?
I love hearing from you!
Let’s get a dialogue going… ha!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.
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