Today we’re going to talk about dialogue. More directly we’re going to talk about how bad dialogue can ruin a story faster than seeing Rosie O’Donnell naked can ruin a hard-on.
Yesterday I spent plenty of time showing you exactly why exposition is quite possibly the worst goddamn thing out there when it comes to storytelling; it’s boring as hell to sit there and be told things while you can instead be shown them. Unfortunately I see it a lot in bad writing, but poor dialogue is just as bad – if not worse.
When you’re writing a piece of fiction, creating immersion is a key component. You need a reader to be drawn into the world of your narrative, and in order to do so you need to populate it with characters doing interesting things. You might not equate dialogue with interesting action, but let’s face it: you’ve got a supremely weird story on your hands if nobody says anything to anyone else, ever. Sure, it’s possible in something like a short story where it’s just one main character and he or she isn’t interacting with anything that can talk back, but if you’ve got two or more characters appearing in the same chapter or story they’re going to end up talking to each other eventually – it’s up to you to make sure they don’t ruin things as soon as they open their mouths and take the reader right out of the action because it’s so stilted and jarring.
Writing dialogue is probably one of the harder things to do if you’re trying to make characters sound natural. Some people have an ear for it; some don’t. Watch any Kevin Smith movie (Mallrats, for example) and tell me that people actually talk like that. I’m not running down Kevin Smith here – I’m simply stating that he’s got a tin ear when it comes to making dialogue sound natural.
It’s important to have your characters communicate their thoughts and feelings to one another, but they need to do it in a certain way that sounds natural. If all your characters talk in the same stilted pattern not only does it become incredibly hard to tell them apart but it unintentionally breaks that fourth wall like a West German national with a sledgehammer; suddenly a reader is no longer caught up in a story but is reminded of the fact that he or she is simply reading words on paper.
This doesn’t mean that every character in your short story or novel has to have a carefully-researched accent or employ idiosyncratic speech patterns, but it does mean that you need to make sure there’s at least a grain of logic in how they act. If you’ve got a character from the Deep South that’s visiting New York City, you don’t have to perform verbal calisthenics to transform their speech into a written version of the southern drawl, but you should at least pepper their dialogue with the kinds of phrases and speech patterns that you would typically hear from a speaker that grew up in that environment. Likewise you should consider how a native English speaker would sound alongside one that learned English as a second language, and this doesn’t mean turning the non-native English speaker’s dialogue into a stereotype but simply giving them certain cues that differentiate their speech.
Think about Lieutenant Commander Data from star Trek: The Next Generation. For the most part, Data doesn’t use contractions when he speaks: does not and cannot almost never become doesn’t or can’t, for instance, and the robotic feel it gives his speech fits his character as an android. However, if a flesh-and-blood character doesn’t use contractions in casual speech, it’s going to stand out like a sore thumb unless they’ve got a valid reason for speaking that way.
The best way to get a feel for how dialogue should sound is very simple: just read back what you’ve written out loud, so you can hear how it sounds. It will help you catch instances of stilted or awkward-sounding dialogue before they escape to plague your reader. Trust me – nothing can kill a reader’s interest faster than dialogue that makes everyone sounds like voice-over actors in a badly translated martial arts movie.