Unnecessary Discourse, Talking Heads, and the British Butler Syndrome

Today editor Christy Distler tackles further pitfalls of dialog in our month-long look at Fatal Flaw # 8: Flawed Dialog Construction. If you’ve missed the first two posts, read them here and here.

Ah . . . dialog. Considering that we humans spend a lot of time talking, one would think that dialog would be easy to write. We speak and listen to others speak all the time. But writing great dialog isn’t always easy, and some writers find it to be one of the more difficult aspects of fiction writing.

At the same time, dialog plays a critical role in a story. A literary agent once told me that when she reviews a proposal for a novel, one of the first things she looks at is the characters’ dialog. “Even if the plot is interesting and the narrative is well written, if the dialog is lacking, the reader will quickly lose interest,” she told me.

This month we’ve been talking about common pitfalls in writing dialog, and today I want to cover three that I often see as an editor: unnecessary discourse, “talking heads,” and what I call “British Butler Syndrome.”

Let’s look at a Before and an After.


Mrs. Gray led us down the dormitory hallway, past several open doors on each side. “Cassie, you will be sharing a room with Ashley Jennings. You are in the same grade, so chances are you will have several classes together.”

“What time does class start?” I asked.

“Students’ classes begin at eight a.m. sharp. The cafeteria opens at seven a.m., and all students are expected to set appropriate alarms so that they can get up, have breakfast, and be to their first class at least five minutes before school begins.”

“What about lights-out?” Mother asked. “Is there a particular time that students must be in bed?”

“Students are expected to turn their lights out and be in bed at ten p.m.,” Mrs. Gray said. “This ensures an appropriate night of sleep so students are able to awaken early enough to eat a healthy breakfast and be prompt for class.” She stopped at a doorway and knocked on it. “Ashley?”

“Come in,” a voice said.

Mrs. Gray led us into the room. A blonde, blue-eyed girl lay on the bed reading a book. She set it aside and stood up.

“Ashley, this is Cassandra Miller and her parents. Cassandra is going to be your roommate. Cassandra, this is Ashley Jennings.”

“Hello. How are you?” Ashley said to me.

“I’m well. How are you?”

Ashley looked at Mother and Daddy. “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Miller.”

“Hello, Ashley,” they both said.

She had been reading when we had walked in and had plenty of books in the room. At least we had one thing in common.


Mrs. Gray led us down the dormitory hallway, past several open doors on each side. “Cassie, you’ll be sharing a room with Ashley Jennings. You’re in the same grade, so chances are you’ll have several classes together.”

I peeked into a room as we walked by it. Empty. Although the low din of voices carried into the hallway, I had yet to see anyone. “What time does class start?”

“Eight a.m. The cafeteria opens at seven, and you’ll be expected to get up on your own, have breakfast, and be to class by five minutes to eight.”

Impressive. With classes starting at eight—instead of seven twenty like at my last school—I’d be able to sleep forty minutes later.

Mother stepped into pace with Mrs. Gray. “What about lights-out? Is there a certain time students need to be in bed?”

Mrs. Gray glanced back at Daddy and me. “Lights-out is at ten p.m. That way you’ll have a good night’s sleep.” She stopped at a doorway and knocked on it. “Ashley?”

“Come in,” a quiet voice called.

She led us inside. The room held two single beds, two desks, and two dressers. Three doors lined the wall across from the beds—two closets and a private bathroom, I hoped. Books abounded on the occupied side of the room, filling a tall bookshelf and stacked against any open wall space.

A blonde girl got up from where she lay on the bed reading. Her skinny jeans and T-shirt could’ve come right out of my closet.

“Ashley, this is Cassie Miller and her parents. She’s going to be your roommate. Cassie, this is Ashley Jennings.”

Ashley grinned at me and then nodded at Mother and Daddy. “Hey.”

I smiled back. Books everywhere, everything OCD neat, Converses under the bed, and a rolled-up towel—perfect for concealing late-night reading—behind the door. Awesome. I’d be rooming with myself, only blonde.

So what differences did you see? Let’s break it down:

  • Unnecessary discourse. Near the end of the Before passage, there are four lines of useless greetings. Sure, people do engage in this type of speech (we’d be considered rude if we didn’t greet each other appropriately), but it can—and often should—be worked around in fiction. Unless the greeting somehow advances the plot, leave it out or simplify it (e.g., with body language). Unnecessary discourse only bogs down writing.
  • “Talking heads.” When writing is primarily dialog with no other description, the characters tend to seem like nothing more than heads talking. The reader gets characters’ speech reactions, but has no idea what’s going on in the POV character’s head. The addition of Cassie’s thoughts in the After passage gives a much more clear picture of her personality.

(Note: Many great writers focus on dialog when writing the first draft of scene, then go back and add more description afterward. If this works for you, do it. Let the heads talk and then go back and enhance with narrative.)

  • “British Butler Syndrome.” This malady occurs when all characters speak similarly, using complete sentences and formal wording—like a British butler. In my years as an editor, I’ve worked with a few authors who, due to “rules” they learned in school, always wrote in complete sentences and never used contractions in their writing, not even in dialog. The result was a monotony that didn’t allow the characters their own “voice.”

Real people speak differently, and characters should too. For example, a twenty-five-year-old male character will have a different voice from his eighty-year-old grandfather; a well-to-do character will have a different voice from a character who lives in poverty; and a twenty-six-year-old character in a contemporary novel will have a different voice from a twenty-six-year-old character in a colonial-era novel. The cure for this syndrome? Use contractions where appropriate, clip sentences when appropriate, and get to know your characters well so you can allow them their own unique voices.

Dialog, when done well, has so many benefits: it gives background about characters (their age, social status, culture) and makes them unique; it shows relationships between characters; and it advances the plot. (Those are just a few; the list could go on.)

Your turn:

How are you when it comes to writing dialog? Do you find it easy or difficult? Have you ever struggled with any of the pitfalls? And if you’ve overcome pitfalls, how did you do it?


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  1. I find it very difficult to create different voices and be consistent about it. Do you pin an actual person from your experience to each character to create a voice?

  2. Thank you very much! Dialog certainly sounds better in MY head! These are good tips…… I did stumble over the sentence ‘Mrs Gray glanced back at Daddy and I’….Shouldn’t it be ‘ and me’?

  3. Hello! I’m writing a fantasy about angels. I want the angels to speak in a somewhat formal language, because they’re angels. The angels are also the same age because they were made at the same time. How do I avoid the “British Butler Syndrome” in this case? I love the language used by the characters in movies like Troy and series like Spartacus and Rome which have a formal tone. My angels speak like this and since they are all the same age and grew up in Heaven they tend to sound alike. I try to differentiate them using different characteristics, quirks and traits but their speech is very similar similar.

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