Monday, June 20, 2011

Dialogue Disasters

We know why it’s a good idea to include dialogue in our stories (see this post if you missed it), but what about bad dialogue? How can dialogue go wrong? Let’s take a look at some common dialogue blunders.

Chitchat: I’ve talked about this before. It’s when a character goes on and on about nothing. Or when two characters exchange small talk about the weather or what they had for supper. The point is that this type of dialogue doesn’t move the story forward and doesn’t add to the development of the characters. While it’s true we speak like that in real life, we don’t want to read about it in fiction.

The Filler-Inner: This is when the author uses dialogue to tell the reader about something in the past. This can work, but must be done in a way that it doesn’t come across as fake. For example, Bob says, “As you know, Mary, we broke up three years ago.” This doesn’t represent true dialogue because Mary obviously knows this already, so the only purpose it serves it to inform the reader. Instead, this same message should’ve been in either Bob or Mary’s inner dialogue so the reader sees his or her thoughts on this but the writing doesn’t come across as amateurish. The other way to approach this is if you really need to show the reader something that happened in the past and you want to do it through dialogue, have Bob tell another character who doesn’t know his history. For example, Bob could tell the detective, “I haven’t seen Mary since we broke up three years ago.”

Drama Queen: This is when dialogue is filled with exclamation points, but it’s also over the top. For example, “Johnny, how could you do this to me! After every thing we’ve been through! Tell me I’m wrong! Tell me you’re not leaving!” Granted sometimes you want ONE character to be a drama queen, but this has to be done on purpose and don’t make this character one of your main characters. Just as drama queens can be exhausting in real life, they are in fiction.

Name Dropping: Too many beginning writers name drop. All. The. Time. This is when the characters call each other by name several times a page. Think about it. In real life, we rarely call people by name when we’re having a discussion with them. It comes across as condescending. For example, “Yes, Bill. I see what you’re saying. Now, Bill, what if we each took a different route and timed it? Then, we could see which is the fastest.” The reader should know who’s talking because of the way the text is set up either with action tags, inner dialogue, or narration, so there’s no need to have the characters call each other by name. Occasionally, you can do this, but it should be RARE.

Telling Emotions: This is when a character tells another character (and the reader) how he feels rather than show it. For example, “I’m so angry that she left me. I just want to kill someone.” Instead, maybe he should slam his fist through a wall, stomp his foot, grind his teeth, make a fist… anything but this.

Dialogue should read naturally. If you know and feel your characters, the words will flow. However, if you’re still struggling with dialogue, try paying closer attention to how others speak in real life, on TV, in movies, and in published novels.

Which dialogue disaster bothers you the most? What other blunders do writers make when writing dialogue? What is your dialogue weakness?

Lynnette Labelle


  1. Great post! I never really thought about the name dropping, but you're right. The telling emotions bothers me the most. I'd rather see it through action. I'm guilty of being a filler-inner. I've been working on not doing that lately, but then I'm told I need more background. It's a fine line to walk.

  2. Sometimes I think I have to much dialogue, but I know when I read a novel that is the part I love to read the most. I often times find myself skipping to it since that is where most of the action occurs.
    Telling of emotions bothers me the most. When I have a character who needs to express an emotion, I try my best to show and not tell.

  3. Hehehe my hate is tied between the in-dialoge back-story dump and the name-dropping.

    "I also hate the -ly tags that come after the quotes," she said prissily.


  4. Great tips.

    Lately, my biggest peeve is when an author uses the same description over and over. Please make your character do something else other than roll their eyes 20 times throughout the story.

    I do it in my first draft, but then I go back and try to get more creative with my descriptions.

  5. Christine: I agree. It's a fine line. At least you have others to help you figure it out. The worst part of writing is when you have to do it all alone.

    Joy: I don't know what your definition of "too much dialogue" is, but make sure you have a balance between narration and dialogue or it'll read more like a play.

    Misha: Yes, most descriptive dialogue tags (adding an adverb) usually should be cut.

    Karen: That's great. Give yourself the creative freedom to write it out and then go back and edit out repeated descriptions or actions.

    Lynnette Labelle

  6. Testing to see if I fixed the "anonymous" issue.

  7. LOL: I hate when blogger posts me as anonymous. I back out and use a different search engine.

    I get really frustrated with chatty characters and info dumps in dialogue (as well as with narrative) but my biggest pet peeve is with the tags. When every comments includes smiles, lip twitches, piercing looks, head shakes, frowns, narrowed eyes . .

    Sometimes the tags are alright, but I've found many writers over use facial expressions as tags, or to emphasize the tone of the conversation.

    Too mushy for my tastes.