It can be argued that nothing is more important to modern fiction (and to a lesser degree memoir, history, and biography) than dialogue. Dialogue shows character, can heighten drama, and it moves the story along at a faster pace than description or exposition. Face it, gone are the days of Dickens and Hardy when readers were willing to wade through pages of prose describing springtime in Scranton, or the interior musings of a character as they weed their garden. Maybe modern readers have shorter attention spans. Maybe we are all truly over-scheduled. Whatever the reason, the modern reader wants a story that moves along, and moves along quickly. Dialogue serves that purpose well, but it must be done right.
Following are the five most common dialogue mistakes I’ve seen among apprentice writers.
Using dialogue for exposition.
This mistake is most common in beginning writers. Putting exposition in dialogue does not make it more interesting, or faster paced than exposition. Generally speaking, it makes it less believable.
Consider an example:
A man greets his wife/girlfriend:
“Hey, honey. How did the interview at the University go?”
“Good. I think.”
“Did they give you the Assistant Professorship?”
Now, realistically speaking, one must assume that both the man and woman knew beforehand what the interview was all about. A more realistic depiction might go like this:
“Hey, honey. How did the interview go?”
“Good. I think.”
“They give you the job?”
The fact that she was interviewing at the University for a job as an Assistant Professor should be revealed in exposition.
Being too creative in attributions.
While “he said” and “she said” can seem terribly boring, for ninety percent of all dialogue it’s what works best. Attribution is used primarily to avoid confusion in the reader about who is speaking. As such, “he said” or “Sally said” works just fine and will pass along the information the reader needs while remaining almost invisible. When the writer starts using attributions like “he opined,” “she volunteered,” and “he stated,” it draws attention away from the story and to the mechanics. Not a good thing.
And please, please, avoid modifying your attributions. “She said sarcastically” is an immediate red flag. The dialogue itself should demonstrate that the statement is sarcastic. The writer shouldn’t have to tell me. As Stephen King says in On Writing, one of the first parts of revision is to go through your manuscript and eliminate all words ending in -ly. They’re unnecessary.
Characters give speeches, rather than have conversations.
Writer’s have to be great (and unobtrusive) listeners, because in dialogue we are trying to create the illusion of people talking. If you pay attention and really listen to how people converse, you’ll quickly realize that real people seldom talk in multiple complete sentences. Most of the time they don’t speak in complete sentences at all. Most of our conversations consist of one or two word questions and responses. People interrupt and talk over each other. Really good friends can often communicate with a single key word or facial expression. Dialogue should reflect that.
Dialogue is written like a play, rather than fiction.
This is something of a stylistic choice, so take it for what it’s worth, but many inexperienced writers create long passages of nothing but dialogue, words within quotation marks, the attributions and nothing else. To my eye, this reads like a play. There’s nothing wrong with drama, mind you, but when I want to read a play I read a play; when I want to read fiction, I want to read fiction.
The key to fixing this lies in the writer’s imagination. She has the dialogue nailed, but the conversations seem to take place in a vacuum. The truth is, people don’t generally just sit there and speak with each other. They are shifting their position, fiddling with items on the table, fussing with their hair or clothing. It’s what the theater people call business. In a play, the actors and director add “business” to the dialogue in the play; the reader of fiction expects the writer to do this. (And it’s another great way to reveal character.)
All characters speak alike.
Perhaps the hardest part or writing dialogue is learning that all people do not speak the same way; neither should your characters. It’s difficult to do. As we imagine the scenes in our stories, we, naturally, fill in a lot of the characters in question with ourselves, which is fine. It’s the only way to write a novel, or story, to imagine how someone would react to a situation. The danger is that all your characters begin to sound like you. Sometimes, we need to step back a bit and take a lesson from the world around us.
We human beings are more alike than different, but there are differences, social differences, political differences, economic differences. Those differences are often reflected in how we talk. A twelve-year-old girl from the suburbs will talk differently than a logger. A philosophy professor will talk differently than a gas station attendant. A police officer from a small town in Iowa will speak differently than a police officer from Brooklyn. Different generations have different slang. Different regions of the country have different idioms, different pronunciations of the same word.
So keep your characters’ backgrounds in mind as you write their scenes and adjust their speech accordingly.
The way to correct all of these mistakes is to pay attention to your work as you create it. (The easiest manner is seldom the best). Also, pay attention to the people around you. Actively listen to how they speak. Listen to how their conversation flows back and forth between them and practice re-creating this. Pay attention to their mannerisms and nervous habits. It’s all material to help you create your fiction.