Revising Part 3: The 6 Most Common Dialogue Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Revising Part 3: The 6 Most Common Dialogue Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

by Laura Harrington

Writing dialogue.  Why does it matter? Great dialogue makes a good book even better.  Dialogue that’s really working can move your plot along almost effortlessly.  Less than great dialogue can undermine our belief in your characters and our interest in the world you’ve created.  How does that happen?  Every time a reader thinks: That’s awkward, or: That’s not how people talk, you’ve chipped away at what you’ve so carefully created: your reader’s belief that these characters are real.

In addition, dialogue can be a wonderful way to elegantly reveal back-story or exposition.  Too often, however, dialogue can seem like the poor stepchild in a book; under-nourished and ignored.

If you really want to learn how to write great dialogue, take a playwriting workshop.  It will be well worth your time and energy.

Mistake #1:  Characters use each other’s names all the time.

For example:

“Bob, I’m so sorry I ran over your cat.”

“Jenny, what are you, an idiot?”

Maybe Jenny would use Bob’s name in this situation, to soften the blow of her bad news.  But why would Bob interrupt the explosion of his anger by using her name?  He wouldn’t.

Writers overuse characters’ names as a form of exposition; it’s a simple way to let us know who’s talking.  But in real life when you know someone well you almost never use their name.  When you do, it’s usually for emphasis.

For example:

A parent using a kid’s full name: “John Joseph Stanley, you get in this house right this minute!”

A disappointed lover: “Jenny, Jenny, Jenny … how could you … ?” But unless you want his lover character to sound whiney, I’d avoid it in that instance as well.

A simple rule of thumb (and there are always exceptions): For each page of dialogue don’t use character names more than once.

Mistake # 2: Forcing characters in high context relationships to speak low context dialogue.

What are high context/ low context relationships?

People in a high context relationship know each other very well.  For example: married couples, siblings, or roommates.  Married couples do not need to tell each other how old they are, how many children they have, or how long they’ve been married.  When/ if they do, the reader experiences this as false and it undermines their belief in your characters.  People who know each other have a wonderful kind of short hand to their dialogue; they assume a great deal.  This is very interesting for the reader because we get to try to read between the lines.  Much is inferred in high context dialogue.  That inference engages the reader, we prick up our ears and pay close attention.  For an excellent example of this, look at the first scene in David Mamet’s play: Glengarry Glen Ross.

Low context relationships occur between people who don’t know each other well.  For example: you and your doctor or lawyer, the prosecutor and the accused, a cop and a suspect, a new neighbor introduced into a decades old poker game.  In all of these relationships it is natural to ask direct questions and solicit information.

You can create these situations in order to get a great deal of exposition out quickly. This is why low context relationships are so important and why you’ll find them used to great dramatic effect. Think of police and medical dramas, courtroom dramas, narratives based on the new kid in town.

Mistake # 3: Only one person in your scene has anything to say or do.

For example:  You’ve got two people in a dialogue scene but only one of them needs or wants anything. Here’s the classic example of this:

Scene: Main character and best friend in a coffee shop. Main character is going through a crisis. Friend asks questions, drawing main character out, so the reader can learn all about the crisis and then the friend can offer sympathy and support.

Sometimes these terrible scenes happen over the telephone.  Even worse.

What’s wrong?  This kind of scene happens all the time in real life, doesn’t it?  Maybe, but even in real life there’s a bit more back and forth just to be polite.  And, face it, that’s not particularly interesting and it’s certainly not dynamic or dramatic.  Nothing urgent is going on; this is just an information dump.

A scene can’t crackle with interest and intensity unless both characters want something and have something at stake.  So spend some time developing the friend so that she has a real life and wants and needs and an agenda of her own.  Your readers are smart.  The friend/ side-kick character doesn’t feel real to them, because she’s not.

And while we’re at it: How about a more interesting setting for this scene — a setting where something could actually happen that might impact the scene and the characters or a setting that would offer them a challenge, where things could get worse.  But even the tired coffee shop setting can be rendered more interesting if you let things go wrong and allow unexpected things to happen.

Mistake # 4:  Overuse of telephone conversations.

The telephone, Skype call or email version of the previous scene is even worse.  Why?  Telephone calls, unless they are short and urgent, signal the reader: Pure Exposition Ahead. You’re a writer; you’re a wonderfully imaginative person.  Come up with a more interesting way to convey the information that’s crucial to your story.

Avoid phone calls/ emails/ Skype calls entirely or use them very, very sparingly. Trust me, technology does not make a boring conversation more interesting.

Mistake # 5:  Bold exposition tarted up as “remember when …” monologues or, heaven help us, “I had this dream last night …” monologues. 

I won’t even read these monologues anymore.  That’s right, I skip right over them.  Other readers may be more polite.  I read “remember when…” and know that I’m in for a lovingly, even poetically rendered pseudo memory, which is really just back story.  This is the easy way out.  I understand it in a first draft, but never in a finished book.  The same is true for “I had a dream …” monologues.  Does anyone really enjoy listening to someone else’s dream? Be more clever.  Delight me with your exposition, don’t bury me with it.

Be very careful and very sparing with monologues in general. They tend to stop the action.

Mistake # 6: All your characters sound the same.

Each character’s voice should be unique and recognizable.  How do you achieve that clear “voicing?”  Go back through you book draft after draft, layer after layer until each character’s voice is utterly distinct.  Your tools to differentiate character through their use of dialogue are word choice, length of phrases, use of metaphor, beats per line, cadence and tone. The more you do this, the easier it will become.

And finally, you can’t write credible dialogue without reading your work out loud.  You need to develop your ear for good dialogue.  Reading dialogue out loud will make awkward work immediately clear.

If you missed the first two installments in Laura’s 4-part series, here are they are: Revising Part 2: Character Arcs and Revising Part 1: Dealing With Plot (or Why I Love 3×5 Cards).  And for more on reading your work out loud, you might want to take a look at a post Laura wrote for Writer Unboxed: “Reading Out Loud: Not Just for Kids.”

Laura Harrington, award winning playwright, lyricist and librettist, winner of the 2008 Kleban Award for “most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre,” has written dozens of plays, musicals, operas and radio plays which have been produced in 28 states, Canada and Europe, in venues ranging from Off-Broadway to Houston Grand Opera to the Paris Cinemateque.

Harrington has twice won both the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award in playwriting and the Clauder Competition for best new play in New England.  Additional awards include a Boston IRNE Award for Best New Play, a Bunting Institute Fellowship at Harvard/ Radcliffe, a Whiting Foundation Grant-in-Aid,  the Joseph Kesselring Award for Drama,  a New England Emmy, and a Quebec Cinemateque Award.

Laura teaches playwriting at MIT where she was awarded the 2009 Levitan Prize for Excellence in Teaching.  She has also been a frequent guest artist at Tufts, Harvard, Wellesley, Skidmore, and the University of Iowa.

Alice Bliss, her first novel, published by Pamela Dorman Books at Viking/ Penguin has been widely acclaimed in print and online reviews and has been chosen by Barnes & Noble for their “Discover Great New Writers” program for Fall 2011.

Foreign rights for Alice Bliss have been sold in the UK, Italy and Denmark.

For reviews, interviews, etc please visit: www.lauraharringtonbooks.com

For additional information about Laura’s theatre work, please visit: www.laura-harrington.com

4 thoughts on “Revising Part 3: The 6 Most Common Dialogue Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

  1. Great post in an excellent series. “All characters must want something.” Every writer should have that posted on the wall. I’m so with you on the phone conversations. They stop a story dead. Will RT!

    Like

  2. let me add a suggestion:
    find and read some Elmore Leonard, especially his early stuff, Glitz, Stick, La Brava …
    and find his NYT essay in the Writers on Writing series.
    regardless of genre, Mr. Leonard is just the best.

    Like

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