Dialogue Don’ts

Another misstep that can jolt readers from suspension of disbelief occurs when a character’s dialogue sounds phony, contrived, or inconsistent.

Developing an ear for dialogue takes practice. It’s helpful to read aloud a character’s lines to make sure they flow well and make sense. However, dialogue should also work visually by being quick and easy to read. Divide it into small paragraphs, breaking to a new paragraph each time a different character speaks.

     “Are you happy now?” she asked. “Will chocolate ice cream satisfy you for just this once?”

     “Okay. Guess so. Black walnut mocha is better.”

     She sighed, tired of his whims, and slammed down the bowl in front of him. “Just eat.”

     “Tyrant.”

By contrast, consider this mash-up:

     “Are you happy now?” she asked. “Will chocolate ice cream satisfy you for just this once?”  “Okay. Guess so. Black walnut mocha is better.”  She sighed, tired of his whims, and slammed down the bowl in front of him. “Just eat.”  “Tyrant.”

The separate paragraphs seem like such a small, obvious detail, and yet inexperienced or careless writers tend to overlook this element of readability flow. Certainly it makes following the conversation difficult for readers.

Phony Dialogue

When a character speaks in a stilted, unnatural way or delivers what is known as dialogue of information, it comes across as false and implausible.

For example, consider this:

     “Darling, darling, darling, I just LOVE your hair. It’s so brown today, catching all those delicious little highlights in the sunlight. And it curls so prettily. Do you wear colored contacts? I think you must because your eyes exactly match that pale streak of color at your temples. And never let anyone tell you to wear pastels, my dear, because they would wash out your skin tones. Leopard prints are what you need. Leopard and jewel tones, always.”

Gushing and flamboyant? Yes.

Over-the-top? Yes.

Dialogue of information? Unfortunately, yes.

Viable? Possibly, if the speaker is a gushing, insincere, middle-aged babbler.

However, sometimes dialogue seems phony because the cadence and vocabulary of the speaker just don’t match his or her design. Let’s say we have a character who is shy, reserved, highly educated, and cultured.

She’s probably not going to say lines such as these:

“So, uh, like I was there, but it was seriously lame. So I bounced, and I wasn’t at the club when the fight broke out.”

Or these:

     “Yeah, I saw the fight. What about it? I hated being a witness. I didn’t notice anything. So why don’t you go pester somebody else?”

Or these:

     “I most certainly did witness the altercation. Unfortunately I had just happened to stop briefly in that den of iniquity to say hello to my dearest friend, a sorority sister if you must know. However, I left promptly since I had no desire to be jostled by the hoi polloi or have cheap beer sloshed across my Armani skirt.”

What’s best is to let the character’s personality shine through without beating readers over the head with it. Therefore, a shy, reserved character would probably answer without mugging or embellishing. Her level of education would come through the use of correct, albeit casual, grammar and an absence of slang:

     “Yes, officer, I went there. I don’t normally go to clubs, but a friend urged me to go with her. I said I would for a short while. But I was needed at home, so I left after about twenty minutes. I didn’t see a fight.”

Contrived Dialogue

I am a fan of the classic THIN MAN series of films featuring Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. But near the end of the third film, ANOTHER THIN MAN, [SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!] the murdered man’s adopted daughter Lois suddenly switches her dialogue and manner in a way that is jarring and entirely implausible. Up to this point in the movie, she has been cultured and refined, an entirely gracious and charming person. In the climax [SPOILER!!!!], her vocabulary and tone become harsh and lower-class.

It’s an extremely crude and awkward transformation that gets the director’s point across, but with such contrivance that I dislike the entire movie.

Inconsistent Dialogue

This can happen when a writer is using dialect, habitual phrases, or a distinct speech pattern to tag a character and make him or her stand out from the rest of the cast. At some point in the story, especially in a novel, said writer is prone to forget those speech tags and allow the character to start talking like some of the others. Somewhere in the swampy middle of a book, writer fatigue sets in. And if multiple viewpoints are being used, or if some of the secondary characters disappear for a while and return after the midpoint, it’s easy to lose track of their individual voices and speaking styles.

So, for example, let’s say that on pages 12-30, Ezra Honeycutt has been cutting a vivid swath across the storyline like this:

     “Now see here, son! I ain’t standing for no foolery when it comes to property lines. I know how much land I own, and that dratted skunk Jones can take me to court all day long and it won’t make no difference. What’s right is right, and I’m darned sure right!”

As you can see, Ezra is testy. He’s not too concerned with proper grammar, through his usage of “ain’t” and double negatives, yet although he’s angry he’s avoiding the curse word “damned.” These are little clues to his personality and upbringing, or even his personal code. He prefaces many of his remarks with “now see here.”

However, Ezra is a minor character. He vanishes from the story for a while, and when he returns on, say, pages 96-117, he speaks this way:

     “Now see here, you! I thought I made myself clear when I took Mr. Jones to court last month, but it would appear that I need to explain this property squabble once more.”

Although one of his phrases remains, the rest of his speaking pattern–the rhythm of it, if you will–has changed. He is no longer consistent. He has become less vivid. He doesn’t appear to be quite the same as he was before. Depending on how remarkable, feisty, and bold he was the previous times he appeared, he may not break the bubble of suspension of disbelief, but he’ll affect it.

If needed, take the trouble to create a speech tag chart for each of your characters and keep it near your computer–or even in a computer file–for a handy reference.

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