In a recent episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, my co-host, bookseller Peter Snell, asked a great question. What makes dialogue sound awkward, unnatural or ‘wrong’?
In the manuscripts I see, there are four main reasons.
1 Trying to say everything in dialogue
Sometimes we get so focused on making characters talk that we forget to let them perform non-verbally, especially if they are shocked or surprised.
Speech is only one part of dialogue. Writers often don’t realise they can use silence, pauses, thoughtful expressions, gulps, gasps of laughter. Instead, they try to put the character’s reaction into words, but this can sound false because many people don’t verbalise if they are reacting strongly. Indeed, they might be robbed of their words.
If a character has been highly amused, don’t make them say how funny something was; let them laugh. If they’re horribly upset, don’t force them to translate that into speech unless this is one of their personality quirks. I’ve seen many an awkward dialogue moment when writers have made their character say ‘No, please no’, when a gesture or a facial expression would be the natural response. Pauses and reactions can be just as eloquent as speech, especially to demonstrate when a remark has had an impact.
2 Including too many banalities
Sometimes, writers stuff their scenes with inconsequential dialogue. Encounters with postmen, neighbours, waiters, flight attendants and others are narrated in their entirety:
You all right?
Yes, thank you, how are you?
Did you come a long way?
Yes, but the motorway was clear so it only took me a couple of hours….
Oh snore. An exchange like this would be normal in real life, and probably in a TV or film script. Indeed it might go on for much longer. But on the page, even the briefest amount of chit-chat soon racks up a lot of lines and draws attention to itself.
If you’ve got a sequence like this, consider why you’re showing it. Is it to make the scene more lifelike? Does the content of it matter? Could you condense it and show just enough to establish that the characters greeted each other, then get on with stuff that will keep the reader’s attention?
Although it would be strange if characters never said anything inconsequential, we need to strike a balance. A few lines go a long way:
Your Chablis, sir.’
Do sit down.’
This same problem arises when major characters have downtime. For instance, they meet for a casual day out. Because they are major characters the writer feels they have to record every sentence. Was the train ride all right, is the fish good, where shall we have coffee, isn’t the weather awful. Let’s go into the cheese shop, and nod as the owner recommends the Brie. Crikey, will anything happen that’s worth talking about?
As always, writers need to examine what the reader should take away. Is it closer knowledge of the people and their relationship? Is it a change or a deepening bond? Pointless chat won’t show this, so delve deeper. Use subtext to explore the boundaries being pushed and adjusted. Maybe your scene is not as edgy as that and the characters are simply enjoying their day. In that case, lose the dull details and bring out the enjoyment. A little trivia is authentic, of course. But use inconsequential dialogue sparingly – and keep your focus on the real purpose of a scene.
3 The exposition info-dump
This is the easiest dialogue problem to spot. Obviously characters have to explain stuff to each other from time to time. And exposition isn’t always bad – indeed, a novel with none might be incomprehensible. But often it’s mishandled and the number one way is in scenes where characters explain something they don’t need to talk about.
As you know, when you and I arrived on this planet three weeks ago and found there was no one at the base…’
So how do you give the reader background information? Simple: find a reason why the characters discuss it. Or write it in the narration, just as you might handle back story or description. But don’t contrive a scene where the characters explain it to each other.
4 Trying to be too idiosyncratic with accents and other speech characteristics
We want our characters to sound distinct and to speak with their own voices. But sometimes writers attempt to replicate accents and dialects, using odd spellings and dropped syllables. Phonetic and mutilated language slows the reader and might throw them out of the story. It can be comic, of course, and more so if other characters also struggle to understand. But it’s just as likely the reader will skip those bits, especially if the rest of the prose is conventional and easy.
If you need to draw attention to a character’s distinctive speech and you want us to read it, tics are best kept to a minimum. You can remind us of it indirectly:
He heard the Scots burr in her voice.
Of course, a novel is its own special world. Your quirks might enrich the speech of the people you invent. It might make glorious sense if your gangsters posture in iambic pentameter, your infants sound inscrutably academic and schoolteachers mumble in monosyllables. But these effects are the result of a conscious style choice.
Certainly we should make our characters distinct, but this should come from their personalities and personal styles. This can come through vocabulary, word choice and sentence rhythms. University-educated characters might think in elegant sub-clauses. Streetwise bruisers might have one plain idea per sentence. With all those devices, you hardly need phonetics.
There’s an entire section on dialogue tips in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Do you have problems making dialogue sound authentic and natural? Do you have any tips for overcoming them, or have you had to learn some unexpected tricks when working with an editor? Are there any writers whose dialogue you particularly admire – or can’t abide, and why? Let’s, er, talk about it…