Saturday, January 3, 2015

Why does all my dialogue sound stupid?

To continue from yesterday's questions posed by my friend, Heather, here is one about dialogue (my favorite thing to write!)

Heather: Why does all my dialogue sound stupid?

First of all, I laughed when I got this question, mostly because it probably doesn't sound stupid.

In my opinion, dialogue sounds "stupid" when:
a) It's not realistic enough.
b) It's too realistic.

Here are some things to think about...
 When it's not realistic enough. 

Does the dialogue feel unnatural? Ask yourself:

  • Am I "info dumping?" -- In other words, are you using dialogue as a way to get information out? Are you explaining too much back story right from a character's mouth? 
  • Does this information have to come out in dialogue, or can I explain it as the narrator? A good way to gauge your dialogue is to read each line and ask yourself does this have to be in this form? If the answer is no, you are likely going to be better off saving the dialogue for a better moment. 
I learned a few semesters ago how important mixing dialogue up with other tools can be: switch between dialogue and indirect dialogue (i.e.: summary of what was said) and flat out telling us information as a narrator, versus a character. Variety adds spice and keeps your reader engaged. 

When it's too realistic. 

  • Horrible, random, off the top of my head example, but it's all I can come up with on short notice-- "Uhm, well, okay, so I was thinking we could like go to the movies." In speech, we add a lot of "umms" and "likes" and other words/sounds to fill gaps as we're trying to think. In dialogue, you don't need those. You could simply say, "I was thinking we could go to the movies." And work into the prose how the character is really thinking, or hesitating, or whatever mood you are going for, as that's going to be clearer to the reader, than muddy dialogue.
  • The same goes for dialect. And I am about to go on a complete and total rant about use of dialect in current literature. I guess this is a personal preference, but I cannot stand wading through dialect. If someone has an accent, indicate that they have an accent, maybe throw a word or two in there to let us know. In fact, I think throwing in a word or two from the character's native language (or region) is very tasteful and smart. If the word order is off (for example, in English we might say "Jessie's girl" but in Spanish they say "La chica de Jessie," so you might want to say "The girl of Jessie" because that is the word order that the character is speaking with. All of that is fine, and feels natural for the character speaking, and the reader. But if a character is pronouncing every word incorrectly, please, PLEASE do not write the entire thing in phonetic dialect. If a character has a lisp, say "John spoke with a lisp" and then write out what's being said, don't try to spell it out with a lisp (unless it's once, and it's supposed to be funny, like John got stung by a bee on his tongue and you're poking fun at how he's speaking, but if the entire book is that way, it's tiring). I want the reading to feel smooth, I don't want to have to feel like I'm in the midst of a logic puzzle as I'm trying to read your otherwise wonderful story. 
Also, just a quick reminder, you don't need to have all of the complicated dialogue tags. Johnny said. is enough. And, also learned from Linda Simoni-Wastila, in her Ten Great Things post, putting "Johnny says," versus "says Johnny" really "gives the narrative momentum." Best piece of advice!

Remember, dialogue is just one of the many tools writers have available to use.

Find a good balance between literary dialogue and reality, and remember....that's probably the reason why you bought this shirt:

Picture by Heather Markle!
Why did I pay $27 for this tee shirt that has a grammar error?!?!
Because you are awesome. 

Thank you for the questions, Heather!

More likely to come this month!


  1. Jacqueline, Even though I don't write dialogue I appreciate all the thought that you have given to this subject. I know where to come if and when I begin to bring dialogue into my writing. Thank you, Carol

  2. I agree with you about too much dialect, it can really slow the reading down, and make it harder to figure out what is being said.

  3. Very interesting points. I haven't written much dialogue because I'm not a fiction writer. But even in some of my education writing, I have to add scripts and I think it really is a niche area of writing to get it to sound natural.


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