How Writers Can Seek and Destroy Banal and Obvious Dialog      

This month our editors have attacked Fatal Flaw # 8: Flawed Dialog Construction. Dialog is a tricky component to master in fiction, and it’s easy to fall into numerous pitfalls that will make dialog sound forced or phony, or come across jarring due to bad structure. (If you haven’t read the previous posts on this flaw, click here, here, and here). Today editor Robin Patchen wraps up our discussion by pointing out ways to identify and destroy banal, boring dialog.

This month, we’ve been discussing writing great dialog. I’ve heard editors say that when they’re evaluating a manuscript, they’ll check the first block of dialog to see how the author handles it. The manuscripts of authors who don’t have a handle on dialog get passed over. It’s that important.

The problem is that dialog needs to sound realistic, but you don’t want it to be realistic, for one very good reason—realistic dialog is boring. Here’s an example of what I mean. In this passage, the heroine, Reagan, is desperate to get some information from Walter.

Before:

Walter answered on the second ring. “Walter Boyle.”

“Hi, Walter. It’s Rae.”

“Wow, Rae. How are you?”

“I’m okay, Walter. How about you?”

“Oh, it’s been busy. I love my job, though. Working as a reporter for the New York Times was always my dream job, so I’m not going to complain. I haven’t heard from you in months. I’ve been calling and calling, but you never call me back. Where have you been? What’s been going on with you?”

“I’m glad you still love your job. I’ve been . . .” She thought of the infant sleeping upstairs. “Busy. Listen, I need a favor.”

“Of course you need a favor. You always need a favor. You practically fall off the edge of the world, but as soon as you need something, then you call me. First, you need to tell me what you’ve been up to.”

“I really don’t have time to go into all of that right now. And it was awkward, you know, because we were together, and now I’m with someone else. I didn’t know how you felt about that. But still, I really need a favor.”

Realistic Dialog is Boring Dialog

I could go on, but I’m boring myself to death. Remember what I said about this scene—Rae is desperate for information, and only Walter can get it for her. Did you get any sense of urgency from that exchange?

Lots of problems here. First, we have some telling. They both know he works for the Times. They both know he’s been calling, and she’s neglected to call him back. They both know they used to be together. So why is it in there? To tell the reader? Find a better way, please. Telling through dialog doesn’t work.

Second, we have the banal greetings. Hi. How are you? How long’s it been? What’s new . . . ? If the reader wants to hear all that stuff, she’ll go have a conversation with the clerk at Wal-Mart. Eliminate all the obvious stuff.

Finally, this dialog is what we call “on the nose.” One character says something, and then the next character responds directly to that, saying almost exactly what you’d expect. If the reader can guess what the characters are about to say, I guarantee, the dialog will be boring. And you don’t want to write boring dialog.

Eliminate the Obvious and Surprise Your Reader

Here’s the same scene the way I have it written in my current WIP. I hope you think it’s better.

After:

He answered on the third ring. “Walter Boyle.”

“It’s me.”

“Rae? Where have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for—”

“It’s a long story. Listen, what can you tell me about the bombing in Tunisia yesterday?”

A long pause. “I don’t hear from you in months. You don’t return my calls. You fall off the face of the earth—”

“I didn’t. I just—”

“You stop sending stories. You just disappear.”

“Look—”

“Where have you been?”

“I’ve been . . .” She thought of the events of the previous few weeks, months. There was no time to explain. “Tied up.”

“Literally? Because anything less than that, and you could’ve returned my calls.”

“I don’t have my phone.”

“They sell phones on every street corner.”

“Look, I’ll tell you, but—”

“You married that guy, right? Moreau?”

Rae froze. Swallowed. “How did you—?”

“It’s not like it was a state secret.”

“No. I know. I—”

“You could’ve told me.”

She ran her fingers through her hair and paced again. “I should have. It was awkward.”

“And this isn’t? You disappear, then call for information like nothing happened.”

“I’m sorry.” Rae collapsed on the sofa. “You’re right. I’m just . . . I need your help.”

“Don’t you always?”

“That’s not fair.”

“Is he . . .” His voice softened, and he started again. “Is he good to you?”

His concern nearly brought tears to her eyes. “You and I have been over for a long time. You ended it.”

“Only because I was the only one really in it.”

She imagined him then, not just as her conduit to information but as her friend. As more than her friend. She’d blown it with Walter like she’d blow it with everybody she ever loved. “I’m sorry, Walter. I don’t know what else to say.”

So what did I do? I deleted all the boring stuff. And because this is a tense scene, I made the paragraphs short. They’re talking back and forth—not fighting, exactly, but certainly not friendly. There’s enough subtext to keep the reader interested. But the main point of the scene remains the same—she needs information, and she has to deal with his questions before he’s going to tell her anything.

You’ll note that Walter has a different goal in mind. He wants to find out where she’s been. So while she’s trying to turn the conversation to her needs, he keeps shifting it back to his.

I hope the result is a segment of dialog that intrigues the reader and moves the story forward.

Your turn:

What lines did you find the most engaging in this conversation? Do you feel the dialog needed more breaks or narrative tags, or would that break or slow the tension? What ways does the After passage reveal the characters’ feelings without outright telling the reader?

8 Responses to “How Writers Can Seek and Destroy Banal and Obvious Dialog      ”

  1. Harald Johnson August 26, 2015 at 10:05 am #

    Great post, and great After version. It just flys by naturally.

    Question: There’s an ample sprinkling of em dashes and ellipses. I get that em dashes here are interruptions in the speech, but how about the ellipses? They’re supposed to be for word omissions, right? But here, they also seem to act as interruptions. Would appreciate a clarification between the two in this After context. Many thanks!

    • Harald Johnson August 26, 2015 at 10:08 am #

      (make that: “… flies by naturally” — gotta be careful here! 🙂

  2. Robin Patchen August 26, 2015 at 11:20 am #

    You use em-dashes when the speech is interrupted. You use ellipses when the speaker trails off and doesn’t finish a thought. I probably use both too often. 🙂

    • Harald Johnson August 26, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

      Good tips. I’ll remember the “trails off” part. Thanks, Robin!

  3. Darlene Jones August 26, 2015 at 3:52 pm #

    At a workshop a presenter asked us to take a section of our dialogue and rewrite it into an exchange of one to three words only. That was an eyeopener as to how dialogue could be spiced up.

  4. Colin Noel-Johnson August 26, 2015 at 8:22 pm #

    I personally think that there should be some middle ground between the two. In the revised dialogue there is no way to know what Walter does, he could be CIA, FBI, a reporter, a crazy dictator in some small country, a terrorist or just a random guy who was abducted by aliens and implanted with a device that allows him to see anything that has happened within 24 hours.. Maybe it would be explained somewhere else, but if he’s just a minor character who is never referred to before or after, it would leave a mystery that would ruin the whole story for me.

    • Robin Patchen August 27, 2015 at 5:42 am #

      A great point, Colin. That information is explained elsewhere in the manuscript. Even if I put it here, it’s important not to tell things like that through dialog. However, you could have the call go to a switchboard, so someone answers and says, “New York Times News Desk” or something, which would clue the reader in and be natural.

      Thanks for pointing that out!

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image

Yes—you CAN make a comfortable living as a writer. But you need a clear plan!
Enter your email to grab my proven 4-step system for mapping out your career (and you'll also get my useful twice-monthly updates!).

Yes—you CAN make a comfortable living as a writer. But you need a clear plan!

Enter your email to grab my proven 4-step system for mapping out your career (and you'll also get my useful twice-monthly updates!).

Awesome! Check your email for your free guide.