Writing a stand-out novel involves a lot of individual pieces working together in perfect concert. If there’s no solid plot? Readers get confused, lost or bored. If the plot is great, but the characters are all one-dimensional paper dolls? No one cares. If we butcher grammar, spelling and formatting? It’s a formula for dismal sales or even a long line of one-star reviews from ticked off readers.
Hey, the world may think writing fiction is easy, but we all know differently ;).
One of the best ways to move plot forward with increasing momentum and to create living, breathing characters is by harnessing the power of dialogue. As an editor for twelve years, I can tell you dialogue is one of the single largest components of writing great fiction, and it’s the part that’s most often butchered. The story can be great, the setting, the prose?
….and then comes this clunky dialogue with characters talking in ways only seen on bad soap operas or movies highlighted/slayed by Rotten Tomatoes. I call it Soap Opera Dialogue or Days of Our Lives Dialogue. Why? Because soap operas never end….EVER. The dialogue is written in a way that a viewer can miss the past seven months of the show and still catch up, so there is a lot of coaching in the dialogue.
Good novels aren’t soap operas. Novels actually END.
This type of dialogue can also be called, As You, Know, Bob…Dialogue, which is what we’re going to address. And just so you know, Stephano was NOT killed by the ice cream truck. It was a ruse to fake his own death, and he’s actually partnered with Victor to embezzle funds from the charity, but you won’t find that out for another three years….
Here today to talk about how to write superlative dialogue is one of our outstanding WANA International Instructors, Marcy Kennedy. This gal knows her stuff, but if you want some reassurance, I strongly recommend checking out legendary screenwriter David Mamet’s Letter to the Writers of The Unit. (Caution: Strong Language. But, in fairness, writers who are paid to write for a major television show should have known better, and they tanked a good show with bad writing and deserved the butt-chewing).
Take it away, Marcy!…
Dialogue is a great way to convey information, but only if you do it correctly.
In Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell says the key to avoiding info dump dialogue is to remember that dialogue is always from one character to another. It can’t sound like you’re manipulating it (even though you are). It must always be what a character would naturally say.
Let me explain.
Dialogue written for the reader’s benefit feels unnatural because you have characters say things they wouldn’t normally say or say them in a way that they wouldn’t (often using much more detail than any of us include when we talk).
Dialogue written for the characters fits the context, and is always from one character to another rather than from one character to the reader. It takes more work to achieve, but the result will be worth the effort.
Dialogue that’s written “to the reader” is often called “As You Know, Bob…” dialogue.
As the name suggests, “As You Know, Bob…” Syndrome is when one character tells another character something they already know. It’s done purely for the reader’s benefit, and it’s unnatural.
TIP: A character won’t say something the character they’re talking to already knows.
Example: A husband won’t say to his wife, “When we bought this house two years ago, we emptied our savings for a down payment. We don’t have anything left.” The wife already knows when the house was purchased. She knows they emptied their savings. She also knows they haven’t been able to replace those savings yet.
Her husband has no reason to say any of that.
Info-dumps won’t always be this obvious, but if you could add “as you know” to the front of whatever’s being said? Time to re-write.
TIP: If it’s common knowledge, it won’t come up in conversation.
Example: Let’s say you have two sisters meeting to go out for lunch. One shows up at the other’s door.
Susie knocked on the kitchen door and waved to her sister who was mopping away in an apron she never seemed to take off. Her sister glanced up and waved then dropped her mop back in the bucket.
She ran a gloved hand through her messy hair that had fallen out of a ponytail and she let Susie inside. “Come on in. I’m just cleaning up the muddy paw prints left by our pit-bull, Jasper.”
Though the prose is good, it’s common knowledge among the characters that her sister owns a pit-bull named Jasper, which makes an otherwise good piece of writing suddenly clunky. Her sister wouldn’t feel the need to state the name of the dog. That’s soap opera writing.
Susie’s sister would be more likely to say…
“Come in for a sec. Just have to clean up the mud the stupid dog tracked in again.”
Even essential information needs to be given in a natural way. So if knowing that their dog is a pit-bull named Jasper is essential to the story, you could write…
“A flash of fur tore across the freshly washed floor and threw itself at Susie for a petting, and she shoved the dog down. ‘Off, Jasper.’ The muddy pooch dropped onto his back for a belly rub, pink floppy tongue lolling out of his mouth.
Ellen rubbed her tired eyes. ‘Sorry about that, Sis. Did he get you dirty?’”
Susie shook her head and rubbed Jasper’s belly with her foot. A little mud never hurt anyone. ‘Any more trouble with the anti-pit-bull crowd at the park? Rick said someone threatened to call the cops last week.’”
TIP: A character won’t say something that isn’t relevant to the conversation.
“A hundred years ago when the dam was constructed, this town was built on the dried out flood plain. If the dam breaks, it’ll wipe out the whole place.”
Did you catch the sneaky insertion of backstory in adding a hundred years ago? What regular person would actually say that? Who would care how long ago the dam was built when the real issue is whether or not the town is about to be destroyed?
Want to learn more about writing great dialogue?
On Saturday, December 7, I’ll be teaching a 90-minute webinar called Say What? Techniques for Making Your Dialogue Shine. I’ll cover the seven most common mistakes when it comes to dialogue and how to fix them, explain how to ensure your dialogue makes your story stronger, show you how to create dialogue unique to your characters, and answer some of the most frustrating questions about dialogue such as how to handle dialect, should we use contractions in historical novels, science fiction, and fantasy, and is it okay to begin a book with dialogue.
If you can’t make it at the time it’s scheduled but still want to attend, sign up anyway. The webinar will be recorded and sent to all registrants. Click here to register!
NOTE: WANA Mama (moi) has created a special page for classes and specials. Just click the new tab or go HERE.
All registrants also receive an ebook copy of the latest book in my Busy Writer’s Guides Series—How to Write Dialogue.
This class is being offered as part of a WANA 2Fer. Save $20 when you register for both my dialogue class and Lisa Hall-WIlson’s Internal Dialogue class. Register for the Two-Fer HERE.
Do you struggle with “As You Know, Bob…” Syndrome? Are there movies that have driven you nutso with this kind of dialogue?
About Marcy Kennedy:
Marcy is a suspense and speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance editor and teaches classes on craft and social media through WANA International. She’s also the author of the Busy Writer’s Guides series of books, including Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth on her web site.
Okay, Kristen, this is a very teaching lesson. Something else I (did know but never paid attention) to. I need to keep my eyes open to make sure I will recognize this syndrome, if I should ever meet or even worse, develop it.
Thanks very much for sharing!!
LMAO! Gosh, Kristen, it’s a good thing for Mariah that we met back in 2010 at DFW, or she would never be safe walking by a campfire again. I always send writers to your blog to learn how to avoid all of my newbie mistakes. This is great!
An solid guideline, explained clearly.
I have – as far as I know – not let any common knowledge sneak into my dialogue, although I do still occasionally have to check internal monologue to see if it is too rich in exposition.
Reblogged this on Laurie Boris, Freelance Writer and commented:
This guest post from Marcy Kennedy on Kristen Lamb’s blog nails it. Dialogue needs to flow naturally from characters. Overloading it with plot points that both characters know? Unless one of them is suffering from memory loss, it will most likely sound forced.
Thanks for sharing the post 🙂
Excellent post, thank you. I see this a lot. Forced dialogue can really kick a reader out of a story.
I have heard of many of these problems, but never have I seen a post that explains the errors so clearly and succinctly. Thanks SO much for this. I am sharing on Facebook for San Antonio Writers’ Guild and San Antonio Romance Authors. Thanks again.
It’s cracked me up to catch these errors in TV shows too. Now and then, the writers try to sneak in a backstory dump with the “As you know, Bob…” syndrome.
Well-explained and a great example of resolving the issue, Marcy! Thanks.
Loved this Marcy! But I do want you to know that my husband actually tells me things I already know CONSTANTLY! Super irritating, which is why I shall never write dialogue that way!
I put the book down almost every time I read dialogue like that.
Sometimes it’s a shame what makes it to print these days when I read some real gems in the self published section.
I first learned about “As You Know Bob” from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s hilarious (and unbelievably useful) Turkey City Lexicon. I always try to keep in mind your tip of characters not telling others things they already know.
Great article. The examples make it clear what you’re talking about.
There used to be an old cliche in science fiction and horror B movies that were once a staple of MST3K, where the scientists explain the Plot Accelerator 3000 (TM) to each other, despite the fact that anyone with the most modest of technical skill in anything would not have that kind of conversation.
I always wanted to write one of those scenes with a voice-of-the-audience character subjected to it, and have him/her say, “Would you two knock off the Bill Nye Science Guy routine and just push the damn button?”
I can see that working great in a spoof or humorous piece!
Reblogged this on Cynthia Stacey and commented:
Great post as usual by Author Kristen Lamb and guest WANA International Instructor Marcy Kennedy.
Thanks for sharing it 🙂
Great post guys! I will have to keep this in mind. thanks. reblogged.
Ooh, so many great tips. I hate, hate, HATE contrived dialogue. It gives me the creeps and shudders.
Reblogged this on Andy McKell and commented:
This post addresses an aspect of bad writing that I really, really hate! Thanks Marcy and Kristen.
I just had to stop reading a book because it had so many “as you know” lines. Also had too many “let’s be polite” lines, and repetition of names. Only two people were having a conversation and they were established by name at the beginning of the scene, yet they had to repeat their names in the dialogue incessantly. “Thank you, Marcy.” “No problem, Maryann.” I’m so glad you wrote this, Marcy.” “My pleasure, Maryann.” LOL