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Why Your Dialogue Is Terrible

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I'm pretty sure your dialogue is terrible.

Most novelists aren't hugely enamored of dialogue, and I say that with a mixture of acceptance and confusion, because I love it. Dialogue is usually my favorite part, and I often have to force myself to write less of it.

I'm not completely positive good dialogue writing can actually be taught, but since that would invalidate the entire point of this article I'm going to try and explain some of what makes that dialogue of yours bad, and what you can do to fix it.

The dialogue doesn't follow basic logic.
This is going to sound incredibly dumb and obvious, but here is how conversations are supposed to work. Person A -- we'll call him Bob -- says something. Person B -- Cindy -- says something that is in response to what Bob said. Then Bob responds to what Cindy said, and off we go, having a proper bit of dialogue.

Here's the problem. Writers have specific information to convey through dialogue, and sometimes we forget that the characters don't care what our agenda is. That leads to conversations like:

Bob: Let's go to dinner.
Cindy: There was a fire when I was a child.

Cindy isn't listening to Bob, Cindy is listening to the author trying to introduce a plot point.

To get to Cindy talking about the fire we're going to have to find a way for Bob to say something that will lead Cindy there. It should not be easy, but if we do it right we can make the conversation and Bob and Cindy more interesting.

Characters are being treated as plot devices.
Sometimes characters are so underdeveloped it feels like their only purpose is to give more important characters a way to express themselves. This is also known as the best friend of the female lead role in every romantic comedy ever. Here's Bob and Cindy:

Bob: What was that thing about your childhood that you wanted to tell me all about?
Cindy: The fire!
Bob: Why don't you talk about it now?
Cindy: Okay.

This is what happens when we know we have to direct the conversation -- my first point -- but are still cheating, because Bob has no kind of existence outside of who he is to Cindy. In other words, Bob is here to make Cindy's monologue look dialogue-ish.

To get out of this trap we need to embrace the notion that every character in our story thinks they are the main character, with lives outside of the plot. We don't need to know anything about those lives, but we have to write characters that do know.

It's too on-the-nose.
On-the-nose writing is what we call it when a character says exactly what they are feeling, and the reason it's always awkward and terrible is that in the real world nobody knows exactly what they are feeling, ever.

Cindy: It's hard for me to love you because of the fire that happened when I was a child, which killed my family.

Generally speaking, people aren't this self-aware, and even if they were they wouldn't articulate things about themselves this simply and clearly. Far worse, this is just boring and lazy writing. This is the kind of character feature that should be demonstrated, but once it's spoken aloud it loses all of the impact it could have on the overall story.

Remember that sometimes the most interesting part of dialogue is what isn't being said. Reticence, avoidance, subject-changes, awkward laughter, mood swings, these are all the things that characters are built out of, and they are more about what isn't being articulated. On-the-nose writing deprives us of all of this.

There's an overload of exposition.
It's possible we are trying to convey too much information in the dialogue.

Bob: Your family died?
Cindy: Yes, they were trapped in the attic of the house on the day of the big fire. They were hiding there because of hurricane Camille, unaware of the serial arsonist who had just escaped from the mental institution.

There are ways to deliver exposition in dialogue, and it's even possible for one person to give what amounts to a prepared speech, but it needs to be treated exactly like that. It can't just appear in the middle of a conversation. There are very few compound sentences in real dialogue, and it's unusual for one person to speak more than two or three sentences before the other person is given a chance to reply.

Another thing to keep in mind when dealing with expository dialogue is that it will work better if both speakers discover something together through their conversation, rather than one person delivering all the facts to the other person.

You've been using clichés.
Sometimes we don't fully realize we're using clichés while we're writing them -- or worse, we think this is how dialogue is supposed to go.

Bob: Let's get one more drink for the road.
Cindy: You bet your ass.

We know -- I think -- people don't actually talk like this. But when writing fiction we are often putting characters into situations we have never been in ourselves, and sometimes this means referencing the only familiarity we do have, which is other works of fiction. So if writing a scene involving a gunfight, when the hero is saying stuff like "here goes nothing" and "we've got company," this is the writer drawing from their own experience. Unfortunately, that experience was in a movie theater.

When I have uncovered clichés in my own work (in edits -- hopefully none have escaped out into the world) it was a consequence of my not entirely paying attention to the conversation. That is, I wasn't thinking about the words, only the message.

That's probably the biggest takeaway from all of these points: pay attention. Bad dialogue is often just lazy dialogue, written as a means to an end rather than an end unto itself. (This might be a cliché. I'm sorry.) I can't teach you to love dialogue, but if you respect it and pay attention to the above points, you can perhaps learn to not hate it any more.

G Doucette is the author of the just-released Sapphire Blue, and (as Gene Doucette) the author of Immortal, Hellenic Immortal and Fixer.