Monday, October 17, 2022

5 Ways Your Dialogue Annoys Your Readers

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Make sure your dialogue is helping your story, not chasing readers away.

I read a lot of first drafts, and one area that frequently needs work is the dialogue. It’s understandable since we often need to write the dialogue before we know what the character’s voice sounds like. Think of it as placeholder dialogue—it’s there to remind us what the character needs to say, but it might not be the way they ought to say it.

For example, the character might be too formal, or say something too on-the-nose about how they feel, or they sound like every other character in the room. The dialogue is more “this is the information the character needs to convey” and less “this is what the character says based on how they feel right now.”
As long as we revise that dialogue later, there’s no problem. But when we forget, we wind up with dialogue that’s full of flaws and doesn’t serve the story. Which isn’t good, since…

Badly written dialogue makes it hard for readers to connect to the characters.

The characters don’t feel like real people. It’s hard to understand what’s going on, because the dialogue is obfuscating instead of enlightening. And the worst part—it just bad writing, and who wants to read that?

Luckily, you can fix your dialogue issues in later drafts. But first, you have to know what to look for.

Here are five common ways dialogue hurts a novel:

1. Characters make speeches, they don’t have conversations.

The dialogue is telling readers information, not showing characters having a conversation, so they speak at each other, not to each other. Characters often ask leading questions just to provide an excuse to dump a lot of info, such as:
“Why does Sally’s anger surprise you?” Bob asked.

Jane considered his question. “I didn’t expect Sally to be mean. I know she’s tough and the reason we’re still alive, and there’s no doubt that she’s the best zombie killer we have, but she always treats me like I’m useless. She dismisses me all the time. She ignores my suggestions. It’s frustrating. I contribute to our survival as well, you know. I was the one who came up with the idea to string those kabob spikes together, and we killed four zombies with that trap.”
Odds are there’s more going on her than this summary of the situation suggests. Sure, it explains the issues, but it’s not two people discussing what could be a deep, emotional moment.

But if we shift focus to what’s really going on here, we get:
“She doesn’t mean it you know,” Bob said. “She’s just under a lot of stress with—”

Jane scoffed. “And we aren’t? I swear, some days I think she’d cheer if a zombie got me.”

“That’s not true. You pull your weight.” He grinned. “Come on, that kabob trap was genius—Sally even said so.”

“No, she said it wasn’t bad, and I wasn’t as useless as she’d thought. Big difference.”
Same setup, but this version feels like two people talking. Add in a touch of stage direction and tags, and this would simmer with interesting subtext, and readers will wonder what Sally is actually angry about.

(Here’s more with An Easy Tip to Avoid Infodumps in Your Dialogue)

2. The entire scene is one big game of tag.

When every line of dialogue is tagged, the tags jump out, not fade into the background as they should. They throw off the rhythm and instead of a smooth conversation with snappy banter, you get a clunky and awkward exchange of lines. For example:
“I thought we were going to the game tonight?” John said.

“Can’t. I’m heading over to the Alehouse for a beer,” Luis said.

“Since when?” John said.

“I don’t know,” Luis said. “What’s with the third degree?”

“It was just a question,” John said.

“Well stop asking,” Luis said.
Hear how stunted this sounds? It has almost a staccato rhythm that grates on the ears. The awkwardness is compounded when you use tags besides said.
“I thought we were going to the game tonight?” John asked.

“Can’t. I’m heading over to the Alehouse for a beer,” Luis replied.

“Since when?” John queried.

“I don’t know,” Luis snapped. “What’s with the third degree?”

“It was just a question,” John retorted.

“Well stop asking,” Luis barked.
Sounds awful, right?

But mix it up with tags and a little stage direction, and this becomes much more interesting (obviously, if you added internal thoughts and all the things that make up good writing, this would be a lot better, but this is about the dialogue).
“I thought we were going to the game tonight?” John asked.

“Can’t,” Luis said, but he didn’t look over. “I’m heading over to the Alehouse for a beer.”

“Since when?”

“I don’t know.” He paused, then shot him a glare. “What’s with the third degree?”

John’s chest tightened. “It was just a question.”

“Well stop asking.”
Even these small changes added enough subtext to this so what they saying—and not saying—is both interesting and clear.

If only two people are speaking, tagging every four or five lines is usually enough to keep the speakers straight, especially if you mix in stage direction or internal thoughts.

(Here’s more with Tag! You're It: Talking About Dialogue Tags)

dialogue, writing good dialogue, dialogue mistakes

3. People don’t really talk like that.

Characters are overly formal and speak in perfect sentences, often without contractions, and they frequently sound like they were written with a thesaurus. It’s also impossible to tell their emotional state based on what they say. Even when they say they’re feeling X, their dialogue doesn’t show that. For example:
“This is a difficult time for me, Barbara,” he said. “My burden is unendurable, and without any recourse, I had no options but to act as I did.”

“But Alphonso, you are not responsible for the tragedy of that poor man’s death.”

“Oh, but I am responsible for what happened to him.”

“It was not your fault that he felt compelled to imbibe so much at Dunellen’s Bar Monday night.”

“Then whose fault is it? Who will pay the price for my mistake?”
This sounds ridiculous unless you’re writing historical fiction where such formality was the norm (and even then, this dips into the melodramatic).

Loosen up a bit and see what happens:
“I can’t take it anymore, Barbara,” he said. “It’s killing me.”

“You’re not responsible for that poor man’s death.”

“Sure feels like it.”

“Did you pour Jack and Coke down his throat all night?”

“No, but—”

“You had no choice. Accept it, ’cause it’s sure as hell not changing.”
Characters who always use formal language and complete sentences tend to sound stilted and unnatural. Natural speech is more conversational, with sentence fragments and contractions. Think about how people in that scene and situation would really talk.

(Here’s more with Thirteen Secrets for Sizzling Dialogue)

4. Nobody stands still.

One of my pet peeves with dialogue is the awkward mixing of movement and speech. Not only is it difficult to read, it’s often hard for readers to understand what’s going on. For example:
“Hey Marissa,” I said, coming through the door and elbowing it shut. “You up for darts tonight?” The face she made as I set my bag down on the floor and kicked off my shoes and made it clear she wasn’t up for that. “Well, how about some mini-golf instead?” I grinned as I mimed taking a swing.
There’s so much going on in this paragraph it’s hard to parse.

Let’s smooth this out and keep the action and dialogue closer together:
I came through the door and elbowed it shut. “Hey Marissa. You up for darts tonight?”

“Darts?” She made a face. Clearly, darts didn’t appeal to her.

“Well, how about some mini-golf instead?”
Not only does this read more smoothly, it creates interaction between the characters that feels shown, not told.

(Here’s more with Rhythm of the Words: Voice in Dialogue)

5. There are way too many people in the room.

Have you ever been to an event where a group of people are having several conversations at once, and you aren’t sure who to pay attention to? Your attention is constantly being jerked around to the next speaker, and after a minute or two, you can’t keep who said what straight.

Too many characters in a room does the same thing to readers.

The problem here isn’t so much the dialogue, but the number of characters, and the author’s need to make sure everyone gets a say. They might think, “Readers need reminding about who’s in the room. If the characters aren’t all chiming in, then readers might forget who’s there. That way, when one speaks up, it’s not jarring and out of the blue.”

All true, but carrying on a conversation with more than three or four people is awfully hard to do well, especially if readers aren’t already familiar with the speakers. You often wind up adding way too many dialogue tags or stage direction to help differentiate characters, so the entire scene gets clunky and drags.

For example:
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” said Miguel, frowning.

Susan shook her head. “I agree. There must be an easier way to get the data.”

“How?” Christopher waved a hand at Keisha, busily searching the client’s website. “Send Kei in undercover?”

“I’m game,” she answered without looking up.

Ben scoffed. “She’d be caught before she made it to the front desk.”

“Not if I help her,” pipped up Tim.
Can you remember any of these characters? Can you tell which one is the protagonist? Probably not, since they each appear once and disappear again.

Unless absolutely necessary, try to limit the number of speakers to a manageable number.

(Here’s more with How to Handle Multiple Speakers in a Scene Without Confusing Your Reader)

Readers are naturally drawn to dialogue because it’s fast-paced, character-based, and active—in other words, it helps drive the story forward.

Even when readers skim the description passages, they stop to read the dialogue. Make sure yours is strong enough to hold their attention and pull them deeper into the story.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and check one of your scenes for these dialogue goofs, and fix any you might find.

What are your dialogue pet peeves?

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Hi Janice, thank you! its so helpful to have the before and after to see suggestions on how to improve the dialogue

    1. You're most welcome. Examples make everything clearer :)

  2. My peeve is your first. Constant use of dialogue tags, even when what you call a stage direction is added making it clear who is speaking

    1. That bugs me as well. It just throws the whole rhythm off.

  3. Another solid, Janice-level analysis of what goes wrong, thanks!

    My rule for tags is always that you have four possible degrees of descriptiveness: no tag, said/ asked, one of those "he retorted" colorful tags, or actual description. A scene needs to use the right amount for each moment, and mix them up to avoid going stale. (And yes, the flashy Type 3 tags should be the least used, but now and then they're still good for when you want just that amount of detail and no more.)

    1. Thanks, Ken! Good rule. I'm guessing stage direction is part of your "description" option :)

  4. One of my pet peeves is when one character asks something, then the author chooses that moment to show the second character's internal thoughts before answering--a memory or some background information. It reads like the first character is left hanging while the second stares into space, processing her thoughts before answering.

    1. Ooo that gets me, too. By the time the question is answered, you forget what was asked. Totally kills the pace.

  5. I love dialogue, I always have. Even though I am an author rather than a screen writer or playwright, many of my books are laden with dialogue. Good if you can carry it off, bad if you cannot. I cannot say that it always works for me, lol, though I would love to tell you that it does. Dialogue, good dialogue, needs immediacy, an "Aaron Sorkin" or Paul Simon" touch. One thinks that too much is not enough and the other, take it easy, let the emotion seep through. I try to keep the fun in dramatic moments, and deal with darkness during the comedy. I liked the article and you are right.

    1. Thanks! So are mine, especially the first drafts. A lot of it is just trusting your ear to what sounds right. If it sounds stilted, it probably is. If it sounds fun and natural, keep it up!

  6. Dialogue with intent--great way to put it. It's there for a reason, and not just to dump info. Great comments and insights as always :)

  7. You always explain elements of craft by showing, not telling ;) I love how you always stay true to your "show, don't tell" advice! Most importantly, it helps me understand right away! Great advice on dialogue. Thank you!!!

    1. Thanks! I love examples for those vey reasons. It's so much easier to get it when you can see it.

  8. Charlotte French11/07/2022 2:26 PM

    Thanks Janice. Yes, all these annoy. And I also hate 'on the nose' dialogue and love clever subtext. The way I see it, the best dialogue comes across as totally natural, but is in fact meticulously constructed with intention. It is truly a craft to learn.

    1. You're welcome! Absolutely. It's not easy to get that natural feel and still convey what a writer needs to do. But when they get it right, it's magical. :)