Character Development,  Craft

Eight Ways You May Be Bungling Dialogue

 Dialogue is the soul of the characters. Dialogue is what brings the story to life for your reader. Are you bungling it?

You may be bungling you dialogue if . . .

 You’ve forgotten about the influence of setting.

Too much dialect, slang or exaggerated speech can distract the reader. Dialogue brings action to the scene. You want your reader to focus on the words and actions of the character and allow the scene to flow smoothly. Anything that weakens the meaning, slows the pacing down or confuses the reader is working against you. How to fix this? Read the dialogue out loud. If you stumble over it, then you’ve put in too much regional nuance. If you can’t detect any hint of setting, consider adding a “Y’all” or a “Fo-gettabout-it”.

You’ve put in way too much exposition.

In some writing circles, writers call this the “As you know, Bob,” mistake. This is when an author uses dialogue to pour out background information in the conversation. How to fix this? Highlight everything that is exposition and then read the draft out loud, skipping the highlighted parts. If you can tell what is going on without info, leave it out. Only put the least amount back in.

You use dialogue tags too much.

He yelled loudly. She whispered. He stuttered nervously. Now, there’s a lot of opinion about this. Some would say that the only tag you should ever use is said. The simplicity of said allows it to be almost invisible to the reader. That’s a good thing. You don’t want to cause attention to anything except the story. But I would also argue that a well-placed dialogue tag can create a visual image for the reader, as long as the verb was strong. I’m also a fan of using a character body language to reveal the emotion. Like this: “I wish I knew more about Chad,” Cora bit her lip and twisted her hair. I’m hoping that Cora’s actions revealed her anxiety about a matter.

You’re too formal.

Dialogue is where we can throw grammar rules out the window. A character wouldn’t always have their subjects and verbs agree, speak in sentence fragments, or use contractions. The best dialogue is loose and indicative of the complex person that it represents. How to fix this? Read your dialogue aloud. Does it feel wooden or stiff? Rewrite it so that the true personality of the character is shining through.

You write the exact way that people speak.

People speak poorly. Their conversations are full of empty words, stops, starts, repetitions and omissions. When we listen to a speaker, we take in the information of dialogue as a whole. We never focus on one word at a time. We gather information from the tone and the body language. Good listeners can glean an immense amount of meaning from subtle cues. Few of these cues can be translated to the written page. How to fix this? Cut out everything that’s unnecessary.

You have no distinction between the characters.

Ideally, you want your characters to be so distinctive that you could take away the tags and have a clue on who was speaking, but that’s not always possible. The more you know your characters, the more their voice will come through. How to fix this? Spend time writing a perspective of the story from that character’s point of view. You’ll be acting as if you are that character. As you craft their dialogue, try to slip back into that character. You’ll probably see a difference.

You ramble on and on without a break.

If rambling is boring to listen to, then it’s doubly boring to read. If your character really does have a long speech to give, figure out a way to break it up for the sake of the reader. How to fix this? Have someone interrupt and ask a question. The speakers should cough and need water. Have the listener notice something and reflect for just a moment. Describe what they are doing with their hands. Or maybe describe their appearance while they speak. Describe their sweaty forehead, their great haircut, their wrinkled clothes or the way they are standing.

You forget about subtext.

Subtext is what is really being said between the lines. The couple might be speaking in hushed tones, nose to nose, about how much they like cheese, but they’re really flirting and are seconds away from a kiss. What is really going on? How to fix this? Make a note at the top of each scene describing what you want to accomplish in each scene. Also, note the emotional temperature of each character. Use their body language to communicate one thing even if their words say something else.

The challenge (and the fun) of writing dialogue is that it’s not just your words that you’re writing, but you’re also giving your character words to say. With thoughtfulness and deliberate choices, your dialogue will not be bungled. And your story will come to life for your reader.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.