Dialogue Don’ts (an exercise)
Here’s the worst piece of dialogue I could come up with in thirty seconds.
“So, watcha think?” Susan queried John with raised eyebrows.
”Dunno, Susan,” John said dismissively.
”Well, John, I totally think you should, like, know,” she sniped. “As Director of Strategic Planning at our company, Nuts, Bolts & Widgets, it’s, um, so your job!”
He nodded. “It is my job. But I’m so unhappy right now because of my divorce that I’m not paying attention to stuff.”
Reading it makes me shudder. It breaks all these basic dialogue rules:
- Don’t bore your reader. In other words, don’t let your characters talk about nothing, and don’t even think about writing in the verbal tics of real life. Fictional dialogue is both dense and distilled. It’s full of information about character, setting, and story.
- Don’t As You Know Bob. John and Susan know what their jobs are; they wouldn’t need to tell each other.
- Don’t use names all the time. These characters know what they’re called–and apart from cheesy sales patter, how many times in real life does the person you’re talking to use your name?
- Don’t use italics or exclamation marks to emphasize dialogue. Trust your words. If they don’t convey what you want them to, choose different words.
- Don’t use clichéd physical mannerisms: nod, smile, raise eyebrows, etc. Yes, we all do those things, but they are so over-used in fiction that readers don’t see them; on their own they’re more or less devoid of information. Pick something else. Perhaps John scratches his head with a pencil. Perhaps Susan unbends and rebends a paperclip.
- Don’t embroider speech with fussy said-bookisms. No one need to query or snipe. She said/he said is perfectly acceptable. It’s standard and therefore practically invisible. (Not wholly invisible; use it sparingly. Your readers aren’t morons. We can remember who’s talking for several whole lines at a time.) Closely allied: don’t use adverbs to describe speech. If you’ve picked the right words, described the right mannerisms, the character’s attitude will be apparent. Again, trust your words.
- Don’t have talking heads in space. I don’t know where John and Susan are. I assume it’s cubicleland, but it could be a bar, or the lobby, or a bus.
So let’s rewrite it. First of all, we’ll just clean it up, take out all the bits that break the rules.
”What do you think?” Susan asked John.
”I don’t know.”
She glared at him. “It’s your job to know.”
”I don’t care.”
That’s so bland it’s pointless. We don’t know who these people are, where they are, what’s happened to trigger this conversation, or how they feel.
So here’s the exercise. Pick a setting (a bank, a hospital, a paper manufacturer’s offices). Decide what’s just happened (rumours of downsizing, the arrival of the police, a siren going off). Decide how old the characters are (and, while we’re at it, let’s give them better names–something a bit less whitebread). Decide how their home life is going (he’s getting a divorce and she’s worried about her sick cat; perhaps they’ve just ended an affair; maybe he’s having sex with their boss).
Now rewrite this snippet of dialogue in fewer than 200 words. Make sure your characters’ speech and mannerisms reflect who they are, where they are, and how they feel. Post your snippet in the comments. We’ll all critique it. Then in a couple of days I’ll discuss some examples of brilliant dialogue, and we’ll all have another go.
Posted by: Nicola