Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Basics: Dorky Dialogue

Last week we talked about the Invisible Said.

Learning to use "said" instead of ridiculous, sometimes-ostentatious alternatives is an important step in crafting clean dialogue.  But if the dialogue itself is stilted, unbelievable, or, well, dorky, it's going to throw us out of the story.

Think about it.  If a character in a novel sounds like he's reading cue cards published by a local chapter of Thesaurus R Us, nobody's going to BELIEVE that character.  They might even laugh.  Or at least roll their eyes.

If we want our characters to be REAL, they need to talk like real people.

Wanna know the best way to figure out whether your characters sound dorky? READ YOUR DIALOGUE OUT LOUD. I am utterly and absolutely serious.  I don't care how weird you feel doing it.  Your ears are your friend when it comes to dialogue.

Wanna know the even BETTER best way to figure out whether your characters sound dorky? HAVE SOMEONE ELSE READ YOUR DIALOGUE OUT LOUD TO YOU.

Painful? Yes. Embarrassing?  Most decidedly.  Helpful? Beyond measure.

My dear, darling (longsuffering, glutton-for-punishment...) husband is my number one Picker-Outer of Dorky Dialogue.  Fortunately, as my writing has seasoned, there are fewer and fewer instances where he needs to ridicule something I've written.

Yes.  Ridicule.

Way back in the first draft of a middle grade novel I wrote several years ago, there was a line of dialogue that was so stilted and incomprehensible that Mr. A scribbled it on a piece of paper and STILL QUOTES IT TO THIS DAY.

You're dying to read it:

"Strange, for silence so long unbroken to be disturbed twice in succession."

*pause for effect*

Go ahead.  Read it out loud. Let it roll off your tongue.  And then try to figure out what it means.

Yeah.  It's REALLY BAD.

Of course I defended it at first.  The line was uttered by a merman, after all.  He was supposed to be, yanno, mysterious.

Um.  Mysterious DOES NOT EQUAL unclear.  And you should hear my husband's dramatic renditions of the line.  Belly-laugh inducing.

In fact, I can't tell you how many times I've ended up belly-laughing at my husband's reading of my dorky dialogue.  Feels SO GOOD to laugh.  And then it feels just as good to get rid of the bad dialogue.

So here are some anti-dorky dialogue tips:


Think about it.  How often do we speak in fully formed, grammatically correct sentences?  Our speech is peppered with phrases, half-thoughts, and single word responses.  Your characters' should do the same.


"Where are we going to go this afternoon?" Marie asked.

"We are going to go to the mall as soon as we have finished lunch," Mother said.  "After the mall, we are going to drive to Aunt Myrtle's house so that we can return the silverware we had borrowed."


"Where are we going?" Marie asked.

"To the mall, right after lunch," Mother said.  "Then we're going to Aunt Myrtle's to return the silverware."


Unless you're writing a historical novel in which contractions would be inappropriate, it's important to remember that modern people use contractions as a matter of course.


"I do not know what you mean," Sibelius said.  "I was not anywhere near the parking lot, and I would not be surprised if you have imagined the whole thing."


"I don't know what you mean," Sibelius said.  "I wasn't anywhere near the parking lot, and I wouldn't be surprised if you've imagined the whole thing."


This is tricky when you've got a lot of information you need to pass on to the reader.  But I think it's important to avoid huge paragraphs spoken by one character, which screams INFODUMP.  Break it up, make the info-sharing happen naturally in the course of conversation.


"As you know," Felixia said, "the fairies and horned bucktooths have coexisted for centuries.  It wasn't until the reign of Fairyqueen Molustinchi'nasa that things turned sour.  The Fairyqueen had decided she wanted to marry Prince Ux, but he ran off with a bucktooth maiden, which didn't sit well with the majority of the fairies, who really loved their queen.  After Prince Ux's mysterious death, which some say was an accident but others say was more nefarious, his half-horned fairytooth son decided he would vie for the Fairyqueen's throne.  His arrogance led to years of strife between the races, which lasts to this day.  And that is why I cannot go with you to Broodshead.  When they see my half-horn, they will know  that I am the blood-spawn of Prince Ux's son."


"I thought the fairies and horned bucktooths used to get along," Samsam said.

"They did," Felixia said.  "But things turned sour during the reign of Fairyqueen Molustinchi'nasa."

"What happened?"

Felixia sighed.  "She fell in love with Prince Ux, but he ran off with a bucktooth maiden.  It didn't sit well with most of the fairies.  And of course, when he turned up dead a few years later, most people believed it wasn't an accident."

"So the fairies and bucktooths blamed each other?"

"Yes," Felixia said.  "But things got really bad when Ux's half-horned fairytooth son showed up, claiming the Fairyqueen's throne.  The fighting went on for years, until he was finally captured and put to death.  But the races have never gotten along since."

Samsam rubbed his thumb along his jawline.  "And that's why you won't come with me to Broodshead."

"I'm sorry.  As soon as they saw my half-horn, they'd know I was the blood-spawn of Prince Ux's son."



"Can you verify that he was telling the truth?"


"Can you prove that he was telling the truth?"


"Of course I will assist you."


"Of course I'll help."


"I cannot fathom what you are talking about."



And there you have it.  Bear in mind, too, that each of your characters needs to have his own "voice."  If, when you are reading your dialogue aloud, you can't tell the different between who is talking, then you're going to have to spend some time individualizing each character's speech patterns.

To check yourself:  Cover the dialogue tags, or retype the section on which you're working without any tags or beats.  Can you tell who is speaking with just the bare dialogue?  If not, you might need to revisit the way your characters talk.

Remember this, too:  Dialogue is FUN!  Good dialogue propels the story, engages us in the characters' interactions, and makes the characters REAL.  As you un-dorkify your dialogue, your story will come to life.

Go to it!  Grab a friend, feed her some chocolate, and ask her to read for you.  Get ready to laugh.  Then, get ready to write some really sparkling dialogue!


  1. Try to limit the use of the word "strangled"

    Like "strangled stomach, strangled voice, strangled sound"

    As far as

    "Strange, for silence so long unbroken to be disturbed twice in succession."

    I have figured it out finally.

    "It was strange that there was a long period of silence that was suddenly broken twice in a row."


  2. Why, Mr. A! YOU'RE EXACTLY RIGHT!! <3

  3. Lol Mr. A! Thank you for doing these Authoress, they help a lot!

  4. This is a great crash course in dialogue for both young and not-so-young writers. May I use this as an example with my students? I am facilitating a teen writing workshop this summer.

  5. Anjie -- That would be awesome! If you'll just include the blog info for your students, I'd appreciate it.