Dialogue is the lifeblood of fiction. It’s how your characters move beyond the page and become living, breathing people. In any sort of literature, it’s going to be the key to making them memorable. In screenplays, it’s going to be what makes them quotable.
Conversely, bad dialogue is the fastest way to make sure characters are dead to your readers. When someone speaks in flat, clumsy, expositional dialogue, it makes them unbelievable. And when a reader can’t believe in your characters, it means they can’t believe in your story.
There are a lot of mistakes I see coming up again and again in stories. Here are seven of the most common ones...
Contractions- One thing that always makes dialogue drag and sound forced is when every word is spelled out in full. A lot of people start out writing this way because they’re trying to follow all the rules of spelling and punctuation so they don’t get branded a rookie, and ironically... While this is a good practice for your prose, most people use contractions in every day speech, even judges, professors, and rich businessmen. Without them, dialogue sounds stilted, wooden, and off-kilter. If there’s a reason for someone to speak that way (ESL, robots, aliens, or what have you), then by all means do it. If your characters are regular, English-speaking mortals, though...
“I am willing to bet you will not act while a child is in danger.”
“I’m willing to bet you won’t act while a child’s in danger.”
“What is the number for the place that does not charge late fees?”
“What’s the number for the place that doesn’t charge late fees?
Notice that using contractions also drops your word count and page count.
On The Nose-- Professional readers and writers talk about dialogue that’s “on the nose.” It’s when someone says precisely what they mean or what they’re doing without any subtlety or characterization whatsoever. It’s the difference between “Why are you constantly mean and disrespectful to me, Rob?” and “What the hell’s your problem, anyway?” Nine times out of ten, if someone’s talking to themselves out loud, it’s on the nose. Almost half the time it’s just exposition (see below). A good way to think of it is old radio-show dialogue, when people had to depend on only dialogue with no visuals at all.
“Come on, Jenkins! There’s only six more steps to the top of this staircase. You can make it.”
“You know I can never forgive you for the way you treated me back when we were in high school and I was in love with you.”
“I can’t eat the rest of this food. I’ll ask the waiter to pack it up so I can take it home with me for later.”
Follow the example of the late, lamented Keen Eddie, where at least once an episode Mark Valley and Sienna Miller would bellow or snap “I hate you!” “I hate you, too!” back and forth at each other in their shared London flat. While those words were pretty on the nose the first time they were yelled, across the show’s short life they came to mean the exact opposite-- with no explanation needed.
Exposition—It was just last week I said exposition gets a bad rap. Expositional dialogue is what gives it that bad rap. Remember being a kid in school and being bored by textbooks or filmstrips below your level? That’s the boredom exposition gives your readers.
"You know, Doug, you've been my step-brother for seventeen years now, and I'm still stunned how bad you are at geography. You need to bone up on it, especially now that you've finally gotten your dream job of being a professional airline pilot."
Use the Ignorant Stranger method as a guideline and figure out how much of your dialogue is crossing that line. If any character ever gives an explanation of something that the other characters in the room already should know (or your reader should know), cut that line. If it’s filled with necessary facts, find a better way to get them across.
Transcription- One thing years of interviews have taught me is that, with very few exceptions, people trip over themselves a lot verbally. We have false starts, we repeat phrases, we trail off, we make odd noises while we try to think of words. Anyone who’s ever read a strict word-for-word transcription of a conversation will find it’s awkward, hard to follow, and a lot gets lost without the exact inflection of certain words.
One of the worst things you can do is try to write dialogue in such an ultra-realistic manner. It will drive editors nuts and waste your word count on dozens of unnecessary lines.
“What I... I think you’ll find that what I wanted...what I meant to say, is that there are some wanna-be... some aspiring writers who follow directions- some aspiring writers who follow guidelines better than others, and they’re the ones who eventually, that is—I mean, if you can’t follow the rules you can’t expect to succeed, right?”
This sort of rambling can work great in spoken dialogue, but when it’s written on the page it’s lethal. Even if you’re trying to re-create Hugh Grant’s confusing confession in Four Weddings and a Funeral, keep it simple for now so you don’t scare off producers and investors..
Similarity- People are individuals, and we all have our own unique way of speaking. People from California don’t talk like people from Maine (I’ve lived almost two decades in each state, I know), people from Oxford don’t talk like people from ITT Tech, and armor-plated, heavily-armed mutants from Skaro don’t talk like Earthlings. In your writing, your characters need to be individuals as well, with their own tics and habits that make them distinct from the people around them. If you can’t tell who’s speaking without knowing the complete context or seeing the dialogue headers, you need to get back to work.
Accents- This is a common mistake by beginning writers. Accents, dialects, and odd speech tics that are written out drive readers and editors nuts. Now, there are a handful of professional writers who can do truly amazing accents in their dialogue, yes, but keep those facts in mind— Only a handful. Professionals. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re still on a lower rung of that ladder trying to impress an editor or producer.
“’ullo, dere, Guv’nah. Spara few shillin’s fur a fella Vetrin uf th’ Waa’?”
“Eh, mah frien’, why you go causin’ mah peeple such beeg problems?”
“If thiz iz yourrr wish, then my warrrriorz will drrraw back.”
Yeah, that last one’s an alien accent I came up with years back for a race that had tongues and beaks like birds. I lost five pages when I got rid of all those triple-Rs.
Show an accent by picking out one or two key words at most and making those the only words you show it with. If he or she’s Jamaican, stick with “mah” instead of “my.” For the Cockney fellow, keep the dropped H when he speaks. Past that, just write straight dialogue. Just the bare minimum reminders that the characters have an accent. Like most character traits, your reader will fill in the rest.
Monologues—This one’s tough, because a good monologue can be a major point in any story or film. By the same token, though, a bad one can bring your story to a screeching halt.
The first clue at if it’s a bad monologue is to look at some of the dialogue rules above. Is it necessary? Does it read naturally? Is it flowing? Does it fit the moment? Someone who launches into a formal monologue while being pounded by artillery shells and enemy sniper fire is probably going to sound a bit forced. If you’re breaking one of these guidelines and doing it with a 750 word monologue, your manuscript is going to end up in the ever-growing left hand pile.
Second clue if it’s bad is to count how many monologues there’ve already been. Yes, that may sound laughable, but you’d be amazed at some of the things I’ve seen. One recent script I read for a screenwriting contest had half-page dialogue blocks on almost every page. If you’re on page forty-five and this is your fifth full-page monologue... odds are something needs to be reworked.
One last tip. A lot of people suggest reading your dialogue out loud to find where it trips. That’s not bad, but if you really want to find out how it reads, ask someone else to read it out loud—preferably someone who hasn’t seen it before or heard you talk about it. If you’re reading it yourself, you know how it’s supposed to sound, where the breaks should be, and what gets the emphasis. Let a friend or family member who doesn’t know it read it out loud and see what they do with it.
And then get back to your writing.
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