Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Critique Observations: When Dialogue Rambles

I've been meaning for quite a while to begin a series on trends I've discovered while editing opening chapters.  Today's is the first installment of Critique Observations.


Dialogue is hard.

In my earlier novel-writing days, my husband was very involved in the first-pass editing process.  One of the things he was best at was calling out dorky dialogue (his term) and making me see that what I'd made my character say was, in fact, nothing like what a real person would say.  Mr. A's presentation was especially effective because of the way he read the excerpts--in dorky voices.

Belly laughter does a world of good when someone's pointing out your writing faults.

One of his all-time favorite VERY BAD lines of dialogue is from the first draft of an MG fantasy.  And here it is:

“Strange, for silence so long unbroken to be disturbed twice in succession.”  

Go ahead.  Read it out loud.  TRY TO FIGURE OUT WHAT THIS MER-GUY WAS SAYING.  I dare you.

Mr. A. keeps this little gem scribbled on a piece of paper amidst his collection of bills and junk-that-needs-sorting.  Whenever he decides to clean out his cubby, he comes across the paper, finds me, and reads it out loud in his best mer-dude voice.

And I laugh all over again.

Dialogue is about more than making your characters' speech understandable, though.  And I've found that, by and large, many of my clients get tripped up on dialogue for several reasons:

1.  The dialogue is unnatural.

Like my example above, lines of dialogue can come off stilted, clunky, overly-formal, and just plain wrong.  As writers, we often have the tendency to infuse our dialogue with a flowery, writerly type of writing that ends up sounding like--well, like a writer writing words.  This is especially evident in fantasy, when we think our characters need to Speak A Certain Way in order to fit the world we've created.  It can happen anywhere, though, in any genre.

One of the best ways to fix this problem is to READ OUR DIALOGUE OUT LOUD.  If it doesn't feel and sound natural coming out of your mouth, then you've got some work to do.

Here are some examples of BAD DIALOGUE.  Read them out loud.  

"I absolutely do not know what you are talking about," Glenn said.  "I would never do anything like that--not ever.  I can't imagine myself stooping so low, becoming that desperate."

Griselda held up the glowing orb.  "It is not yet time for me to reveal the depths of this orb.  Indeed, it is not in my power to choose, nor to reveal, this time.  Look upon this with eyes wide open, small ones.  Look upon it and shudder."  She smiled.  "The end of everything is upon us."

In the first example, Glenn is being too formal ("do not" instead of "don't") and redundant.  Here's a better version:

"I don't know what you're talking about," Glenn said.  "I would never stoop that low."

In the second example, the magical Griselda sounds like she's reading cue cards for a B-movie.  It's a fine line, indeed, between making our fantasy characters sound intriguing--and making them sound ridiculous.  Perhaps this version reads better:

Griselda held up the glowing orb.  "I cannot tell you what I see.  I hardly understand it myself."  She smiled.  "But let's not fear the end of everything.  Not yet."

2.  The dialogue is too much at once.

This is closely related to #1.  Writing entire paragraphs of dialogue spoken by one person isn't going to read naturally.  People don't speak in one-minute soliloquies!  Natural, back-and-forth dialogue gives speakers equal time, with responses on the shorter, not the longer side.  Sure, sometimes a character will have a big explanation to give.  But it's still better to break up that explanation with some interjections from other characters, and certainly with a beat or two.


"Mother wasn't always this way," Eva said.  "Years ago, when I was small, she smiled all the time.  Laughed a lot.  But the depression started setting in while I was in high school.  Sometimes I would come home and find her curled up on the sofa, weeping softly.  That's not an easy thing for a sixteen-year-old, you know?  And there have been so many doctors over the last few years, so many failed attempts at drugs with side effects I can't begin to describe to you, that I've lost count.  It's no wonder Dad gave up and left.  He was never strong enough to deal with anything that rocked his boat too hard.  So that leaves me.  I'm the only one here who gives a damn about her.  And I'm not about to abandon her."

It's simply not believable that Eva would stand there and spout that entire chunk of text while her listener(s) stand listening raptly.  At the least, the text needs to be broken up with some beats.  What is Eva doing?  Pacing?  Opening and closing her fists?  Passing gas?  And what about her listeners--are they responding?

Nobody talks in huge chunks of text.  (Well, I'm sure there's the odd exception--the talkative person in your life who doesn't seem to need oxygen to keep going.  But even if you're writing a loquacious character, the chattiness needs to be believable!)

"Mother wasn't always this way," Eva said.  "When I was small, she smiled all the time, laughed a lot.  But the depression set in while I was in high school."  She bit her lip.  "Sometimes I would come home and find her curled up on the sofa, weeping softly.  That's not an easy thing for a sixteen-year-old, you know?"

Raymond brushed her arm with his fingertips.  "Yeah.  I know."

"There have been so many doctors over the years--so many failed attempts at drugs with side effects I can't begin to describe.  It's no wonder Dad gave up and left."  She was on a roll now.  "He was never strong enough to deal with anything.  So that leaves me.  I'm the only one who gives a damn about her."

3.  Dialogue that rambles without purpose or direction.

This is also a common problem.  We must never forget that dialogue isn't just about making our characters talk to each other.  It needs to serve a purpose and move the story forward.  If your dialogue isn't doing those things, then it needs to go.

The purpose might be two characters getting to know each other, or the revealing of important information, or even an argument.  But if you continue on with banter that isn't focused on moving the plot forward, your pace will utterly stall.  It's all "blah blah blah" with no reason for existing.

Rambly dialogue:

Flippy poured the tea into Noonie's cup.  "I hope you like oolong."

"I love it!"

"So do I," Flippy said.  "Though it's hard to find my favorite blends locally."

Noonie reached for the honey.  "I know.  This is such a po-dunk town.  I want to leave."

"I've been wanting to leave for a long time."  Flippy waited her turn for the honey.  "It reminds me of when we were in high school."

"Oh, my!"  Noonie stirred slowly.  "Those were the days."

"Yes.  Those were certainly the days."

"Would you like some milk?" Flippy asked.

"No, thank you," Noonie said.  "Honey is all I need."

Flippy sighed.  "It would be so lovely to be able to buy local honey."

"I was just thinking the same thing!"

"Maybe..." Flippy tapped her fingers on the sides of her teacup.  "Maybe we do need to go back to our high school dreams.  Just pack up and leave, like we said we would."

"You haven't changed much, have you?"

"I suppose not," Flippy said.  "Well, except for these extra inches around my middle."

Noonie laughed.  "I guess that's part of growing older."

"Certainly not my favorite part."

"No," Noonie said.  "Mine, neither."

Clearly, Flippy and Noonie have some plans to make.  But all the banter about tea and honey and fat middles isn't doing anything to forward the conversation--or hold our interest.

Don't get me wrong--characters do have to interject little personal thoughts and funny asides and whatnot.  The trick is to do that without losing the thrust of the scene.  In short, AVOID BUNNY TRAILS.  We don't need to be privy to every, tiny detail of Noonie and Flippy's conversation.  It's a given that we're only being shown a portion of it, anyway--the portion that is vital to our story.  Their tea party will likely continue off-page.  We need to see only the part that will move the plot forward.

Flippy poured the tea into Noonie's cup.  "I hope you like oolong."

"I love it!"  She reached for the honey.

"I've been thinking about our high school days," Flippy said.  "All our big dreams."

Noonie smiled.  "You're going to try to talk me into leaving this po-dunk town, aren't you?"

"We always said we'd pack up and go.  But all we did was grow old."

"I did more than that," Noonie said.  "And I think you did, too."

"I grew thicker around the middle, is all.  Cream?"

"No, honey's enough for me."

"None of this is enough for me."  Flippy tapped her fingers on her teacup.  "Let's do it.  Let's get out of here."

And there you have it.  With a disclaimer:  I'm not claiming that my above examples of good writing would win any awards.  But they are definitely better than the bad examples the precede them.  It's the CONCEPT I want you to walk away with, and not the burning desire to write a Flippy and Noonie scene just like mine.

As you continue to edit and revise, turn a sharp eye toward your dialogue.  Is it natural?  Is it necessary?  Does it read like a real person saying real words in a real situation?  It may not come easily at first, but after a while you will get your groove, and the words of your characters will spring to life.

Just remember:  DIALOGUE NEEDS A PURPOSE.  Once you give it one, it will zing!  And your story will unfold as naturally during your characters' speech as it does during exposition.  A worthy goal, yes?



  1. Thank you! These are great examples.

    Maybe it's just an excuse to watch more TV and movies, but I've found watching something in the genre I'm writing can help for a feel of dialogue. When I started a light-hearted YA contemporary I burned through 2 seasons of Mtv's Awkward. For YA writers, I cannot recommend this series enough. It's sharply written, funny, sweet. Several characters have their own distinct voice. Glee is another good example, though I haven't watched it in awhile.

  2. That's a good point, Steph -- Mr. A is much more of a movie person than a book person (I know, I know...how did I ever marry him? ;D), so his ear for dialogue is attuned to that. That's probably why he's been so helpful!

  3. This is so right on the mark. Another way to get a grasp on dialogue is to read stage plays. Playwrights have to be masters of the art of dialogue.
    Buuuuuut... who likes to read plays? They are meant to be watched.

    Good for you for having Mr. A. Really cool guy!

  4. Thank you, Authoress, for yet another succinct writing lesson. You point out common mistakes so logically and, ever so generously, give a side-by-side to show me the clear path to redemption.
    If only these lessons were readily available to every writer honing their craft- so much tormented rewriting and editing could be avoided!
    Perhaps you should write a book ;)

  5. I think it also helps to just write the dialogue straight out on the page without placing any quotes or he saids and she saids and Minerva said etc....it helps to make it flow before you stutter step to structure it...that can come later. Also, for those who can, recording it first (as in saying it out loud as a way of composition) is also a good technique. But it certainly does make our characters come alive. No one always recognizes good dialogue (because it seems so natural) but we all sure recognize a clunker :)

  6. Well said.

    I read somewhere that dialogue is war. To me this means there are two or more people talking who hold opposing views. Those opposing views create conflict and tension. They don't have to be yelling or shouting at each other.

    If characters are talking together and everyone agrees with what is said, that is called peace. No conflict, no tension, no story.

  7. Thanks for the great examples. I can't claim to be good at writing dialogue, but it sure bothers me when I come across dialogue in a book that simply isn't natural. It's distracting and makes the story less believable.

    We can all learn valuable lessons from you--please keep them coming!

  8. Thank you! These are great tips.
    I've noticed that reading my dialogue aloud helps me tell when it isn't right. I'm guilty of making it too formal or adding in unnecessary information. I will be keeping these examples in mind as I'm revising.

  9. "'Mother wasn't always this way,' Eva said. 'Years ago, when I was small, she smiled all the time.' (FRAAAAPPP!) 'Laughed a lot.'"

    You're right, that does work better!

  10. Ages ago I wrote dialogue without contractions. I thought it was clearer and more proper somehow. Ha!
    All good points^. The funny thing is that each of the bad dialogue examples can be found in lauded published books. But we won't go there.

  11. Very helpful post. Thanks, Authoress.

  12. Great advice. Thanks so much for sharing your examples.