As I continue working through the outline of the first book of a planned trilogy, I started drafting out a few of the scenes that seemed the most relevant to the overall plot and character arcs. One of these scenes was a little more dialogue-heavy than I envisioned. Not a big deal, since it’s literally the first draft of a randomly placed part of the novel.
But it did get me thinking a bit more about dialogue in general, and some of the mistakes I’ve seen in both my own work, and also in my Theme of Absence submissions. Some of this might go without saying, but there are other mistakes I didn’t know I was making until they were pointed out in a rejection letter.
So here are seven things you shouldn’t do with your dialogue:
1. Don’t tell the entire story through dialogue.
This can really throw off a reader, especially if they lose track of which character is talking. I remember a book we had to read in high school, in which the author apparently didn’t believe in dialogue tags. I couldn’t count how many times I had to stop and trace back the conversations to the beginning to figure out who was saying what.
Another thing to remember here. Readers like action. If you fill your novel up with conversations describing the action instead of just writing the action, you will run the risk of losing a reader.
2. Don’t have the characters tell each other things they should already know.
This advice came in the very first rejection letter I ever received from a now defunct publication call Aoife’s Kiss. It’s still one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received. Using dialogue to convey a message to a reader is fine. But it’s not fine when two characters are having a discussion where they tell each other things they both already know, just for the benefit of the reader.
So why is this so bad? Simply the fact that real people don’t talk like that. If you’re a passenger in a car and you want the driver to slow down, you’ll say “Slow down.” You won’t say “Placing your right foot on the larger pedal and applying pressure will reverse the rate of acceleration and slow down the car. Please do that now.”
3. Don’t filibuster.
As much as I loved Atlas Shrugged, come on. There are so many scenes in that book where a character is simply giving a speech and the other characters are reduced to members of the audience. This does not (or at least should not) occur in real life, so don’t let it happen in your own books.
4. Don’t overdo the slang.
It might seem okay on the surface to use current trendy slang in your dialogue, especially when writing YA. This could lead to a problem, however, as your novel ages. The way kids and teens talk today is a lot different than how it was five years ago, and that might make your novel seem dated. Another thing, it may take five years from the time to write it until the time it gets published. You’d hate for the dialogue to already seem dated by the time it’s published.
I’d suggest staying away from any of the current teenage slang you hear at the mall and stick with words and phrases that have been around long enough to show some staying power.
5. Don’t overdo the dialect.
I know I like to harp on Stephen King’s Dark Tower series a lot here, but it’s such a good series to learn from. In this case, you can look at the character of Odetta Holmes / Detta Walker. King’s overuse of her dialogue seemed more like a stereotype than a plot device, and to me was just distracting. A lot of this dialect could have been left out of the text and left to the reader’s imagination.
(I suppose in King’s defense, I could speculate that since the character in question was one-half of a split personality, King wanted to differentiate between the two characters as much as possible. I get that, but since he already did such a great job of showing that with her thoughts and actions, the dialogue change did not need to be so over the top.)
6. Don’t overuse helpers and mundane actions.
…Jason said loudly.
We all know how I feel about adverbs, but this goes beyond that. Sometimes when people talk, they just talk. They don’t need to constantly fiddle with their facial hair, crack their knuckles, play with the change in their pockets, slide their glasses over their noses, brush the hair out of their eyes, flick a cigarette, sip on their coffee, or do any of the other cliched dialogue things we all mindless insert into our characters’ conversations.
7. Don’t have the characters address each other.
With the exception of Agent Dale Cooper (and me, when I spent a year or two of my life trying to be just like him) most people don’t address who they are talking to–by name–as they talk to them in a one-on-one conversation. So just watch out for that in your own work. Oh and also go out and watch Twin Peaks if you never have. It’s amazing. Although, I haven’t seen the new season yet, so we’ll see how that plays out.
Keep it real
Anyhow, in closing, I know this post was full of a lot of “don’t”s and not very many “dos”, but in the end that’s okay because my point in this post could really boil down to one thing: The most important thing to do with dialogue is to make it sound real. Would real people sound like your characters? If that answer is anything other than the word “yes” than you may need to rethink how you are having them talk.
So thanks for reading, and until next time, feel free to share some of your own dialogue tips in the comments section!