Today’s post is written by Alex Limberg.
It’s such a bummer.
You’ve written a scene, and it seems to work perfectly. The plot takes its course and the characters are all going after their desires, busily mingling. Interesting things happen.
But when you read through your scene again, a big problem jumps out at you: The dialogue just feels very commonplace and boring. It’s not distinctive enough—all of the characters sound the same, like placeholders.
How can you fix that and make your dialogue sound vivid and intriguing?
Here are the four major pitfalls in dialogue and how to avoid them.
(And because I know dialogue flaws are often hard to detect for the writer himself, you can download a free goodie here to check your dialogue and make it intriguing.)
1. All of the Characters Sound Like You
Newbie writers often make the mistake of letting all of their characters talk without filtering their words through the characters’ distinctive personalities. All of the figures talk like the writer.
With a little practice, that’s quite easy to avoid. Think about who your characters are, one by one: What’s his age and sex? How did she grow up? What are his values? What’s her temper? What’s his personality?
When you really get into your characters’ heads, you’ll see that every single one of them demands totally different talk. They all use different vocabulary, different length of sentences, different power of expression, etc.
Mild-mannered Lady Chatterbee, who grew up in a castle, might say: “Would you be so kind as to give me notice for how much longer we have to ascend this questionable mountain?” Whereas hands-on lumberjack Curt, straight out of the woods, might say: “Damn! No end to that $%&* slope!”
Avoid making all the characters talk like you.
2. The Characters Waffle Too Many Trivialities
Nobody reads fiction to see commonplace phrases. In real life, a good part of what we speak consists of salutations, compliments, good wishes and other formulas. But in fiction, that’s annoying and a bore. Can you imagine how your audience would feel reading a scene beginning like this:
“Good morning, dear!”—”Good morning, darling!”—”Did you sleep well?”—”Yes, and you?”
They would feel bored, really bored.
In screenwriting, there is a rule that says “Get into the scene at the latest possible moment and out at the earliest possible moment.” In fiction, that rule is not so strict, because fiction readers can handle a pace that’s a bit slower. But keep in mind that you should always have a reason for every sentence you write.
Superfluous words in a good story are like too much fat on a delicious steak—nobody needs it.
So what can you do?
Your first option is to just cut the formulas, nobody will miss them.
Your second option is to pack them into interesting, plot-driven dialogue, so they will seem like a natural by-product and readers won’t notice. Take a look:
“Good morning, dear! Have you seen Georgie?”
“Oh my god, he should have been sitting on his high chair. Maybe he’s sneaked outside, I’m gonna run and catch him. Good morning, darling!” [kisses him on cheek]
Avoid boring your readers with trivialities.
3. The Characters Express Themselves Too Logically
If the characters in your story always reply exactly “on point” to what the other one just said, your dialogue will feel very constructed.
In the real world, we humans talk first and foremost from our emotions. Our answers are often just emotional reactions deeply colored by our personalities; they are not precise, to the point replies.
Imagine one part of a couple asking the other one to go walk the dog. A logical reply would be something like: “It’s your turn today, honey; I did it yesterday.”
But let’s make that character answer according to her feelings. She would say something like: “Why is it always me who has to walk the dog?” (anger); “Always the same old story!” (annoyance); or “And you want me to pick up the slippers for you too?”(with a slight grin; annoyed amusement).
You can make your dialogue vivid and realistic by letting your characters talk after their feelings, not after logic.
Avoid too “correct” and stilted dialogue.
4. Your Dialogue Is Plain Boring
Even if all the characters have their unique voices, your dialogue will also have to follow its primary purpose: To entertain!
Maybe you and your characters are just reciting the program of the plot too mechanically. Maybe there are no quirks, no detours, no fun, no suspense.
How can you solve this problem and inject something interesting?
For one, make sure your characters fully show off their personalities. The more they express their thoughts and feelings, the more material you will have to insert interesting bits of “dialogue within the dialogue.”
You can keep your dialogue juicy by introducing little side topics. Say the scene is about a guy buying a gun. Within the dialogue between him and the shop assistant, he gets sidetracked and enthusiastically depicts his new pink whirlpool to the assistant.
Remember, small detours can be entertaining, but they have to add something, be it suspense or fun. And they have to stay small and not take over the dialogue.
Avoid dull conversation in your scene.
Wow Your Readers With Intriguing Dialogue
You can often see these four typical mistakes in dialogue. With a little practice and a watchful eye though, you can eliminate them from your writing forever and craft dialogues so thrilling and authentic, your reader will eat them up like cotton candy.
Your characters will take on a life of their own, and your audience will be swept away by their struggles and will just have to keep on turning the pages.
Alex Limberg is blogging on Ride the Pen to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Create intriguing stories with his free ebook ’44 Key Questions’ to test your story or check out his creative writing prompts. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.
Join the discussion
This couldn’t have been timed more perfectly for me – this morning I went back over the first 4 chapters of my book and found dialogue that matched all of these examples. I am feverishly re-writing them all now. Thanks Alex
Alex Limberg says
That’s awesome, Earl!
Sometimes good things in life come with perfect timing.
Adrian Tannock says
I’m with Earl, above…
Reading this list made me realise: all my characters sound either like Mr. Spock on Star Trek, or they sound like me. I particularly liked the advice about understanding your character’s background better (point 1) and expressing emotion (point 3).
Both of these points will pay off for me. Thank you for the excellent read!
Alex Limberg says
Excellent – understand your characters and kill the Spock types.
Thanks for this Alex. I’ll definitely be using these tips in my writing henceforth.
Mary Jo Martin says
Good article, Alex. Coming from a business writing background, this is an area I struggle with.
Thanks, Mary Jo
James M. Copeland says
Very much to the point!
James M. Copeland
L. R. W. Lee says
Let’s see, how to make my response interesting… Phenomenal post. Practical and effective advise 🙂
Nice! And thanks everybody for the nice comments.
I write in French. The dialogue is a great problem for me. I’ll attack this problem thanks to you.
Thank you very much.
The most common problem I’ve seen when editing, is the reluctance of authors to use contractions.
Nobody says, “do not”, “cannot”, “it is”… it’s always “don’t”, “can’t” and “it’s”.
“‘cos” comes in handy too, but if you’re using intelligent quotes on your word processor, make sure when you’re using a contractive apostrophe before a word, that it’s the right way round, and not an opening quotation mark. (shift alt ] on a Mac keyboard… I don’t know about Windows.)
Yes, contractions rule and make dialogue sound more natural. Don’t be afraid of informality, it’s not your PhD thesis.
Joy Pixley says
Count me in as another person struggling with a chapter packed with dialogue today, and this hitting exactly the right spot. They don’t all sound like me, but boy, three of the four sound an awful lot like each other. Hey, that’s two distinct voices though; moving in the right direction.
One question about keeping dialogue juicy by introducing side topics: I agree I could get more flavor in that way, but the pink whirlpool sounds suspiciously like something my critique partners would tag and ask whether it’s germane to understanding the story. Any tips on finding the right balance?
Hi Joy, it depends. Don’t make it the main issue when bringing it up. And hey, if you write well, you can even make it the main issue.
Basically, you have to find the right balance, develop a feeling for it. Write enough pages, and you will find the right answer for yourself. 😉 It’s something that can’t be explained 100% in theory.
Dominik Auer says
Alex, this is truly a fantastic guide. I couldn’t make any progress with my writing but after I’ve red your guide, I feel this intense motivation already coming back again. I didn’t waste time and subscribed to your blog ridethepen.com to get the free e-book.
I am eager to read more of you.
Reen Collett says
Chris, that isn’t a problem when using straight quotes throughout. So many writers’ help sites and blogs insist on straight quotes so that must be one of the reasons why.
Anthony Metivier says
All great points!
My problem isn’t so much that my characters talk like me, but that they talk like each other. I’ve wondered if this is much of a problem, however. I haven’t noticed many differences in character voices in Cormac McCarthy or even Stephen King. In the most recent King I read (Mr Mercedes), he seems to introduce a few oddities, but then reverts to regular discourse.
This leaves the reader to either maintain that image of the character, or build their own – which, as King points out in On Writing, is what readers usually do anyway.
There are many ways of writing well. As a beginner, it’s good to stick to the rules, and when you are good, you can take your liberties to break them.