I can be forgiving about a lot of faux pas in writing. I don’t mind some cliché’s if they’re presented with a new and interesting twist. I can even forgive the occasional character stereotype if they work well within a story, and most of the other characters in that same story are more complex or original. I can even forgive the archetypical hero’s journey formula that appears in most popular fiction and fantasy. But, one writing sin I just can’t STAND and instantly kills a story for me is bad dialog!
There’s the old adage in both writing and cinema; “show, don’t tell,” and that’s one thing to keep in mind when writing dialog. Too many people try to cram exposition and backstory into a dialog that sounds stilted and unnatural. The main thing you have to ask yourself when writing dialog is – do real people talk like this?
Directors such as Ralph Bakshi or Quentin Tarantino are known for their dialog because they study the way real people talk and interact, even the non-sequitur topics that can pop up in the middle of a casual conversation. Though admittedly, Tarantino’s dialog is sometimes hit or miss for me, when he does get it right, it feels very organic.
Characters shouldn’t talk about things they already know. This is bad exposition. Like I said above, show, don’t tell. I can’t express how many times I’ve read dialog where characters are discussing topics as if they’re just learning about it for the first time when that absolutely isn’t the case. This is bad dialog!
Sometimes authors write characters asking questions for which they should already know the answers in a poor attempt to bring readers up to speed on backstory but at the sacrifice of making your characters look incompetent or as if someone suffers from a severe memory deficiency. Please don’t do this.
The key to writing good dialog that feels like something real people would say in an actual conversation is ‘organic flow.‘ Does the conversation flow organically, or do they move from one topic to the next in a stilted, unnatural manner, or does the topic shift naturally like it would in a real conversation? You can feel when a character’s dialog is trying to force a topic change or bring up some point important to the story, but they don’t manage to pull it off without feeling like someone just drove a freight truck through a glass shop. If you struggle understanding organic flow in dialog, sit outside at a coffee shop, or listen to people talk at a party, or in a restaurant (sorry if that makes you a dirty eavesdropper), or when out with friends, instead of talking, just hang back and listen to your friends talk among themselves and pay attention. Notice how topics transition from “Hey, where’d you get those shoes” to “I bought them for a party” to “Billy Bob is going to be at this party” to “Have you heard about what happened to Billy Bob?.” The natural way conversations flow and change subject is vital to understand if you want to write dialog that doesn’t feel forced.
And seriously, Billy Bob, get it together!
Another thing to avoid when writing dialog is what I call painful introductions, or “who are you again? I forgot.” Probably one of the most painful things about bad dialog is when characters address each other like they just heard the other character’s name for the first time when they’re supposed to have known them for ages.
“This is a long weekend. What are you going to do, Susan?” asked my best friend of forty years.
“I don’t know, Carrey, got any plans?”
“Nothing planned yet, I’ll ask my husband, Frank, what he wants to do.”
Yes, I have read dialog, just like that. The most egregious offenders of such bad dialog are usually young and inexperienced writers, but sadly, I have seen older, experienced, published authors create dialog just like that. I understand you want your readers to learn your character’s names, but please don’t make your characters sound like inhuman automatons, or again, like people who suffer from severe memory deficiencies.
What’s the last book you read with bad dialog? What do you think is the worst dialog offense? Are you guilty of any of these in your own writing?