Friday, October 20, 2017

Writing Dialogue: What You're Doing Wrong (And How to Fix It)

I'm going to go ahead and take a wild guess and say that you, at some point in your life, have had a conversation with another person.

I'm also going to go out on a limb here and say that you've have more than one conversation. Not only that, but you've also listened to and read dialogue.

So it is extremely pathetic that you are writing dialogue and doing it completely, horribly wrong.

How is that even possible? *shakes head* Inconceivable.

Here are 7 things you are doing wrong when writing dialogue. And, because I'm feeling generous today, I'm going to explain to you how to fix them. Isn't that nice of me?
Writing Dialogue: What You're Doing Wrong (And How to Fix It)
1. You're being robotic. Your dialogue sounds similar to what two very poorly developed androids might sound like if they were to discuss the weather.

"It looks cloudy today. Do you think it will rain, Andy?" asked Rob.
Andy nodded. "Yes, I do think it will rain today, Rob. But that is good. I like rain. Do you?"
"No, I do not like rain," Rob said, frowning. "It makes me rusty, which does not feel good."

Really? Really? Nobody talks like that. Stiff, on-the-nose dialogue is one of the greatest sins a writer can commit. Yet people do it every day.
  • How to fix it: Read it aloud, act it out, compare it to real-life dialogue. Seriously. Read it out loud as if you yourself are having the conversation. Does it sound like something you would actually say? Or something another person might say? No? Then re-write it. And yes, this rule still applies if you are writing a conversation between people that are completely unlike you. If it feels stiff and isn't supposed to, you're doing it wrong. When I applied this rule to the conversation above, here's what I get: 
Rob looked upwards, neck gears creaking. "Do you think it will rain?"
Andy grinned eagerly and nodded, then paused. "Why, don't you like rain?"
"It makes me rust," he complained, scratching at a flaking spot on his chest plate.

Better, right? Of course right.

2. You're being too realistic. In trying to avoid writing robotic dialogue, you've swung too far to the other side, resulting in annoying, dragged out conversations. Do regular conversations include a lot of ummms, uuuhs, space fillers, pointless pleasantries, or unnecessary profanity? Yes. Does that mean that your dialogue should include all of these, too? Not necessarily. Chances are you're just bogging the story down and boring (or annoying) your readers. 
  • How to fix it: Cut out anything that doesn't serve a purpose. Ask yourself: "Does this move the story forward? Is this style of dialogue important for character development?" If the answer is no, delete it. Hyper realistic dialogue is only helpful in very specific cases, so be careful if you find yourself drawing too much from real-life.
3. There is no subtlety. Most people don't say exactly what they mean when they're talking. And yet, for some reason, you have decided to write all of your dialogue in a way that completely slaughters any and all subtext. Your dialogue is as obvious as Gollum's desire for the ring and it's really bringing your story down. Is that what you intended? If so, well done.
  • How to fix it: Be thoughtful and intentional with your dialogue. As you are writing, think about what it is that your character wants and how he/she is feeling at the moment. How comfortable is he/she with talking to the other character(s)? What are her ulterior motives? What is she driving at? How does what she is saying connect to the themes, plot, and pacing of the story? All of this subtext is crucial to a story, so try to work it into the way that your characters communicate with one another.
4. You aren't taking character personality into account. Your introvert talks in exactly the same that your extrovert talks. Your characters communicate with their peers in exactly the same way that they communicate with people who are or older or younger than them. Either none of them use slang or all of them use slang. Everyone speaks in exactly the same voice, which is not only boring, but also highly unlikely.
  • How to fix it: Decide on speech patterns for each character. Maybe your extrovert is long-winded, whereas your introvert uses short, hesitant sentences. Anne might use slang all of the time, but Brian only does when he's talking to his group of friends. Perhaps your straight shooting hero says exactly what he means, while your antihero says exactly the opposite. Put thought into making your dialogue diverse. 
5. Your dialogue tags suck. Did you seriously just use the word "said" to close out eight consecutive lines of dialogue? And then turn around and use super long, involved descriptive tags for the next five lines? Stop it! 
  • How to fix it: Vary your tags, and make sure they are relevant. Despite what you may have heard, Said is not dead. He's just been beaten with an inch of his life because people used him too often. It is okay to use said, but don't forget about retort, complain, shriek, and other such words. And remember to vary them with action, especially if it is important for the reader to understand the facial expressions and movements of the characters speaking. This is especially important when trying to add subtlety to your dialogue. Dialogue is never static, so don't forget to mention body language, hand movements, or actions the characters are performing as they speak.
6. You didn't do enough research. You're writing a surfer character, but your surf slang is way off. You've crafted a bilingual character, but didn't take the time to research bilingual speech patterns. 
  • How to fix it: Don't be lazy. Get online and read up about the character type you are writing. Watch some movies, check out some YouTube videos, go talk to people in real life who share things in common with the character you are writing. Take notes and apply them to your dialogue. 
7. Your dialogue punctuation is a mess. Commas and periods are outside of quotation marks, tags are disconnected, and over all your dialogue looks like you threw random types of punctuation at the page and hoped that some of them stuck to the right spots. Wow. It's like you've never read a book before. 
    • How to fix it: Go read a book. Seriously. Go find any traditional, nonexperimental novel and flip to a page that has dialogue. Notice common punctuation patterns, quotation mark placement, and tag usage. Or, if you aren't into critical thinking, go Google "how to punctuate dialogue." 
And there you have it. I bet you didn't know you were so bad at dialogue. Well, now you do. Don't feel bad. Just go fix it. Right now. It's hurting my eyes. 

Have any tips to add? I'd love your input! I'd also love to hear about some authors who write excellent dialogue, so please leave their names below. 

Have writing or reading questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah in the comment section below or on social media to have them answered on my Youtube channel!

Related article: 
5 Steps to Writing 100% All Natural Dialogue - A Guest Post by Miranda Kulig

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  1. Number 1 is the worst turnoff, in books and TV (it's why I can't stand Curb Your Enthusiasm).
    A tip I use for number 4 is to steal--I mean... borrow... character voices from celebrities,. If you mentally cast your detective as Owen Wilson, it's easier to make him sound distinct from your Roseanne villain.

    1. I haven't seen Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I also get SO annoyed by robotic dialogue.

      I really like your tip about using celebrity voices! That's a good idea. I imagine you could also use friends/coworkers etc, though that may be misconstrued if you use your friend's voice to write a villainous dialogue. =]

      Thanks for the great comment, Jennifer!

  2. Writing dialogue is the bane of my writing existence. I typically know what good dialogue looks like, but it's hard to get it onto paper (or a computer screen). One of the best things I ever did to improve my dialogue writing was when I was taking a creative writing course, and we had to write a play. So I listened to actual conversations and studied dialogue in some of my favorite films, realizing some were more original than others. As for your point number 4, Tolkien and Lewis are masters when it comes to dialogue. Just compare Puddlegum, Trumpkin, and any of the Pevensies and notice how differently they talk. Thanks for another good post, Hannah!

    1. That is so cool! I absolutely see how writing a play would help with dialogue writing. Now I want to try. =D

      Good point about Tolkien and Lewis being awesome at dialogue. Puddleglum has some of my favorite dialogue character tags of all time. =D

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Azelyn!

  3. I was reading this article, thinking how great I must be at dialogue since I was doing all the right things, and then I hit number 6. >~<

    *sigh* I've TRIED researching how an Irish person in the 1890s would talk, but apparently it's just too specific a thing for the internet to help me with! I've even tweeted and posted about it to ask for help and gotten no response. I'm very stuck, and very worried about offending my Irish readers.

    A little help please? ;~;

    1. Ah! That does sound like quite the pickle. I think this may be a good time to move to secondary source material: Try finding novels that are written in the late 1800s with Irish characters. Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is a comic book: The Boston Metaphysical Society. It's excellent and has one Irish character who has a really good voice.

      Also, if you're worried about offending Irish readers: You can always try to get some Irish beta readers and ask them to read through to make sure you're covering your bases.

      I hope this helps! You're going to do great.

  4. Worse book I've ever read contained zero contractions in the dialogue. Great storyline. Hard to stay interested.

    1. Gah. Yes. Contractions are so important, yet so abused in dialogue.

  5. So sassy!! Lol. I love it. Dialogue really is one of the biggest sellers or turn-offs for me in a book.

    1. Hahaha! Thank you. The sass was strong with me the day I wrote this.

  6. In creative writing classes, we were encouraged to stick to: asked, said, and an occasional answered or replied. All other verb forms to express dialogue were frowned upon. Maybe, over the years, this rule has changed. Even so, I rely upon mannerisms and actions to show the tone of my characters' speech, rather than creative dialogue tags.

    Rambling dialogue, followed by paragraphs of explanation, and info dumps bother me the most. It's important that characters talk to each other, not at each other.

    Thanks for the helpful tips and examples. Enjoyed the post!

    1. I think this is a really good rule of thumb, Linda. Sometimes it's okay to mix it up, but often it comes across as stilted. Thank you for the helpful comment!

  7. Thanks for the tips. Dialog has never been my strong suite, but as of late, I've been looking to change that. This post has been a lot of help.

    1. I'm so glad to hear that! Keep up the awesome work!

  8. This was so helpful (and funny). I've had trouble with different and unique people in my stories sounding the same when they talk. I guess I was afraid of making their personality seem too forced and gimmicky and went overboard. ��

  9. " flip to a page that has dialogue."
    Oh wow, I wonder where you'll find one of those!!


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