Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 61: 5 Types of Clunky Dialogue
When you write excellent dialogue, you will simultaneously sharpen the rest of your narrative tools. When you write clunky dialogue, however, it’s unlikely readers will be able to engage with the story on any level.
Happily, dialogue is usually one of the most enjoyable and intuitive parts of writing narrative fiction. We all do dialogue research every single day: we all talk; we all listen. The only trick is to do it consciously, to learn to understand the rhythms and intents of real-life dialogue, and then to strip it down to its most purposeful core on the page.
That last is the hard part.
5 Clunky Dialogue Mistakes to Avoid
Writers sometimes trip themselves up by overthinking their dialogue (and, yeah, sometimes by not thinking about it at all). Instead of creating a natural flow that is always meaningful, without being too obvious, writers sometimes slide into overly stiff and awkward constructions, in which the dialogue separates from the rest of the narrative like oil on water.
If you can avoid the following five clunky dialogue mistakes, you’ll be well on your way to writing a seamless and engaging narrative that showcases a strong and professional voice.
1. Clunky Dialogue Is Too Formal
Formal characters should speak with formality:
“Greetings, madam, I would like to inform you that Mr. Martin telephoned during your absence.”
This is characterization. However, the characterization necessary to accurately bring to life most people will not reflect this kind of stultifying formality. Very few of us talk this way. We mumble, we garble, we chop our sentences in half, leaving subjects and sometimes even predicates to be understood by implication.
“Yo, that dude—what’s his name?—Martin—he called while you were gone.”
“Hey, Martin called.”
Rule of Thumb:
Examine every line of dialogue. Can you shorten it? Can you chop off the beginning or the end, so it’s less formal? Can you turn “please pass the salt” into “pass the salt”? Or even just “salt”? This won’t work for every line, of course, since it can quickly contribute to a choppy feel. But sprinkling a nice mix of informal sentences into your dialogue will immediately spice up the entire conversation.
2. Clunky Dialogue Is Unsurprising
Good dialogue should be unexpected. It shouldn’t be:
“I love you!”
[wait for it…]
“I love you too!”
If readers can anticipate exactly how your characters will respond in any given situation, then it’s time to up the ante.
Dialogue provides context. It’s the most important outward aspect of your character. But there’s so much more to people than what they show the world (consciously or unconsciously). There’s a whole wealth of unseen subtext inside them—motivations, fears, lies, hopes, confusions, plans. If a character’s dialogue is always a perfect representation of that character’s inner self, then what you have is both unsurprising and on-the-nose.
It’s boring. Readers don’t want dialogue to be an explanation of your character. Rather, they want the dialogue to be a window in the character’s deeper and much more surprising self. They want to learn things about your character—and they can’t learn anything unless the occasional dichotomy between dialogue and intent offers the surprise of new revelations.
For example, Princess Leia and Han Solo’s classic exchange:
Or [SPOILERS] the exceptional moment in Christopher Nolan’s excellent war film Dunkirk, in which a shellshocked soldier asks about a boy he shoved down the stairs while in a panic. He asks the boy’s friend if the boy is okay. The boy is not okay; the boy is dead. The angry, grieving friend looks at the desperate, broken soldier and pauses for a long beat. We expect him to say: “No, he’s not okay. He’s dead. You killed him.” But in one of the most understated moments of courage in the entire film, he instead speaks an ineffable gift: “He’s fine.”
Rule of Thumb:
Consider each conversational unit within your story. Can you identify at least one surprising moment in each exchange? If not, look for a place where one of your characters can respond in an entirely unexpected way. Don’t allow yourself to write the first response that comes to mind. Instead, dig deeper for the second or third idea—lines of dialogue readers won’t anticipate.
3. Clunky Dialogue Makes All Characters Sound the Same
When dialogue falls prey to the previous two mistakes, it often succumbs to the third problem of “voiceless” characters. Not only do the characters all sound overly formal and on-the-nose, they also all sound the same. You could pull a line of dialogue from anywhere in the book and have no clear idea which character was doing the talking.
“Good morning, dear. I thought I would go to the grocery store today.”
“That’s an excellent idea. Please get some milk while you’re there. And do you need anything, Junior?”
“Yes, please, I’d appreciate a chocolate bar.”
Beyond the facts that they’re hungry and polite, do you learn anything about these people from this exchange? They sound like Cleaver clones—or, worse, robots.
Usually, the problem of indistinguishable character voices indicates deeper problems with the characterization itself. But one fixes the other. One of the best ways to characterize someone is via personalized dialogue.
“Good morning, dear. I thought I would go the grocery store today.”
“Forgot the milk, didn’t you? I told you to write a list. I’m always telling you. Ain’t I always telling her that, Junior?”
“I want chocolate!”
Rule of Thumb:
Do a dialogue-only edit. Instead of reading your entire manuscript straight through, read just the dialogue. This will help you get a feel for the give and take of your different characters’ voices. You can then strip this technique down even further and do an edit of only one character’s dialogue. Pay attention to the consistency of his voice and, if pertinent, its evolution over the course of the story.
4. Clunky Dialogue Skips Character Reactions
Good dialogue isn’t about just the dialogue. Although dialogue can stand on its own to a large extent, it shouldn’t have to. Dialogue is just one part of the larger whole. It supports and is, in turn, supported by all the other narrative tools in your toolbag. One of the most important of these tools is your characters’ reactions—both external and internal.
Sometimes clunky dialogue is clunky not so much it’s problematic in itself, but because it’s forced to stand all on its own:
“Too much sauce?”
“Yeah. I mean, no. I—I just don’t think this is working out, Mark.”
“Eat your spaghetti.”
Seems awfully abrupt, doesn’t it? Mark’s either heartless or manipulative—those are the only two explanations for what seems to be a complete lack of reaction on his part.
But when you sow in a little meaningful internal narrative and a few action beats, everything changes:
Deidre toyed with her spaghetti.
I eyed her. “Too much sauce?”
“Yeah. I mean, no.” She looked up. Her eyes were slicked with unexpected tears. “I—I just don’t think this is working out, Mark.”
I waited a beat. There had to be more. Thiswasn’t working out? What was this? But I knew. Suddenly, the spaghetti sat heavy in my own gut.
I swallowed hard and reached across the table with my napkin to smudge the tear that had fallen down her cheek. “Eat your spaghetti.”
Rule of Thumb:
Sometimes it can be easy to get so absorbed in the back-and-forth of a smart dialogue exchange that you forget all about the sensory and internal aspects of the scene. Read through your dialogue carefully. Don’t read it out loud (although that’s a good technique for correcting some of the earlier problems). Read it in your head, just as your readers would, and try not to impose your own inflections on the words. Do they make sense as they stand? Or do they need a little help from the other techniques in your arsenal?
5. Clunky Dialogue Doesn’t Flow
Sometimes we have to write the dialogue before we can know what the conversation is about. And sometimes, especially if you’re an outliner, you already know what the conversation is about, but you have to write it first in order to find a natural way for characters to exchange the necessary information. Either way, authors sometime unintentionally end up with dialogue that does not evolve naturally from one subject to the next.
It could be the causal link between subjects is unclear:
“I have to take Patty out to dinner tonight.”
“That’s awesome. Did you hear about the Clownface Murders?”
Or it could be the conversation scrambles its topics—discussing one thing without resolving it, moving onto something else, then circling back to the first thing:
“You wanna tell me why the DA’s office is totally mum about these murders?”
“Sure, I’d be happy to tell you—as soon as you tell me why you stood me up last night?”
“I had to work. I left you message.”
[And then the relationship aspect of the conversation goes on for half a page, transitions to a discussion of work plans for the next day, and then circles back to the DA.]
Although good dialogue should not be so straightforward that it is either unrealistic or unsurprising, it should be reasonably streamlined. Group your conversational topics. Characters should never circle back to previous topics—unlessthe intent is deliberately ironic.
Rule of Thumb:
Take a second look at any lengthy dialogue exchange in your story. Divide the conversation into sections, and title each section with the conversational topic at hand. Is each topic complete unto itself in a way that naturally flows into the following topic? Or do you find the same topic scattered throughout the conversation? Do a little copy-and-paste sleight of hand to put all dialogue pertaining to the same topic in the same section. Then rework the back-and-forth of the conversation, so it all flows intuitively.
Fixing clunky dialogue is one of the single best ways to give your manuscript a major facelift. Even better, it will help you increase your understanding of how to use any number of narrative techniques, including subtext, irony, word choice, and word economy. Have fun and start talkin’!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What’s your best trick for avoiding clunky dialogue? Tell me in the comments!