Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue

When I'm reading contest entries that fall short, one of the biggest pitfalls I encounter has to do with dialogue. I'm also most at a loss when commenting on this area, which is definitely more art than science. Here are a few things I do know. Since I'm crabby because the dumb dog woke me up way early , they are totally unfiltered for politeness.

Deal with it. ;)

Dialogue should never be:
1. Dull.

"How are you, Alphonse?"
"I am fine, Susie. How are you?"

You're not out to transcribe banal, everyday chit chat. We can all hear that at home. Any dialogue on the page should serve the plot and/or characterization.

2. Stiff.

"I must say, Sue, you are looking especially fetching today in your pretty, red sweater."
Susie's smile turned to a frown. "I am surprised at you, Alphonse. I never realized you were a drug fiend."

Note the overuse of names as a form of address, lack of contractions, use of complete sentences, and bizarre, language that's out of sync with your story's time period.

3. Expository (used solely for the purpose of giving the reader information, especially when it's info the characters already know.
"As you may remember from our high school days together, Susie, I have a rare condition called vocabulus anachronistis, whose major symptoms manifest themselves in bizarre language choices, wolfish eye-goggling, and repulsion of the opposite sex."
"And you may remember, Alphonse, last October's restraining order is still in effect, and my violence-prone daddy's still on the police force."

4. Unintentionally hilarious.

It's definitely not cool when the writer isn't in on the joke.

5. A literal transcription of natural speech (complete with all the "ums," "ers," stammering, and pointless asides.)

Great dialogue is zingy, deep/clever, and makes you wish you could express yourself so well in the heat of the moment. Since the majority of writers I know are introverted nebbishes at heart (no, I don't mean you, personally, of course!) dialogue gives us a chance to shine!

6. Homogenized.

If your book's Harvard-educated philosopher sounds exactly like 82-year-old Daisy from the corner sub shop, you've got yourself a problem.

7. Stupid.

Readers should not be gagging at the cliches, rolling their eyes at the obviousness, or thinking of filing sexual harassment charges against your story's hero.

If you're having trouble with your dialogue, try reading it aloud without the story's narrative, listening to actual human beings talk (eavesdropping in stores, restaurants, and coffee shops is a critical writers' skill), and reading/studying plenty of good books to develop an ear for it. I won't lie to you - a lot of writing dialogue is inborn talent, but you can and will get better at it if you make an effort. And quiz yourself about whether you've committed one of these seven deadly sins.


Pamala Knight said…
LOL! That was hysterical while at the same time being extremely helpful. Thanks for posting.

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