Two writers talking about dialogue

5 Ways You’re Writing Your Dialogue Wrong

Good dialogue will punch you in the chest.

It will swing like a fist out of the dark, and when it hits it will make your heart stop.

But when writing dialogue, most writers miss. Even professionals make some major mistakes (I’ll show you a few examples in a minute).

There are five things you need to stop doing when you write dialogue…

Fix these, and you will write dialogue that will smack your readers right in the emotions:

Mistake #1: They Write Dialogue Just to Have Characters Talk

I have an exercise that helps me figure out how my characters interact.

  1. I’ll throw a few characters into a blank page, and give them a problem to wrestle around (i.e. there’s a guard blocking the gate, or there’s a bomb about to go off).
  2. Then, I set a timer for 5 minutes.
  3. And I’ll write nothing but their dialogue until the timer goes off.

No dialogue tags. No setting details. No nothing.

Great exercise… but not a great way to create “final draft” dialogue.

In a recent post, I talked about Hemingway’s 7 Ways to Write More Immersive Dialogue, and here’s one key takeaway I want to share with you:

“Good dialogue is not real speech. It’s the illusion of real speech.”

You need to explore your characters. I keep an “idea graveyard” at the bottom of my stories and chapters for this purpose.

But aimless dialogue is a problem that prevents many amateur writers from ever going “pro.”

How Do You Fix This?

You must have a goal for every written conversation. For example, every dialogue must do at least one of these things:

  • Advance the plot
  • Reveal a gasp-worthy truth
  • Create mood or atmosphere
  • Lift the blinds on your characters thoughts
  • Explain factual information from your character’s point of view

Great dialogue accomplishes several of these goals at once. It’s not about “characters just talking,” because real dialogue is boring.

It’s about driving your story forward and revealing the interesting pieces of your characters.

Mistake #2: They Write the Whole Conversation (Even the Small Stuff)

Good dialogue, and by extension, good writing, is all about one thing:

Keeping your readers hooked.

If every sentence you write makes your readers want to read the next sentence, then you are officially a “good writer.”

How do you make that happen? It’s easy. Well, it’s not easy, but the answer is simple:

Tension.

Your writing, your stories, and especially your dialogue, must play with tension.

It doesn’t have to be a non-stop, building-on-fire thriller (although thrillers are a great way to learn about tension).

But dialogue without tension is boring. That’s why I cringe everytime I see writers who include the small stuff…

…the introductions, the formalities and banalities… Really, anything that is obvious or unimportant to your dialogue’s goals.

How Do You Fix This?

Here’s a quick example from Writer’s Digest:

“Hello, Mary.”

“Hi, Sylvia.”

“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”

“Outfit? You mean this old thing?”

“Old thing! It looks practically new.”

“It’s not new, but thank you for saying so.”

The author of the article transforms this yawn-inducing passage into urgent, just by cutting out the small stuff:

“Hello, Mary.”

“Sylvia. I didn’t see you.”

“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”

“Where is he, Sylvia?”

Select your words carefully. Cut down on the unnecessary, and skip the boring parts.

I have a writing exercise for you at the end of this post that will help you massively improve your dialogue…

…but first, I have a few more mistakes to show you.

Mistake #3: They Talk While Standing Still

Think about the last time your phone rang.

When you picked up that phone, and said, “Hi Mom,” just before she launched into her twenty-minute tirade about how the mail person keeps throwing packages too hard against the door, and I swear! I’ll report him! I’ll do it!

I don’t know.

The point is, when you were talking to her… what were you doing?

Did you sit, bolt upright for twenty minutes? Or were you doing something:

  • Eating a bowl of cereal
  • Running on the treadmill
  • Pretending to listen while you watched Youtube videos on mute

This is something most video game writers get horribly wrong:

How Do You Fix This?

Add movement.

We love dialogue because it shows what your characters are made of. Their emotions.

Aside from realism (which helps immerse your writers), movement is an easy tool for revealing the emotional state of your characters.

For example, are you stomping and shaking the treadmill while listening to your Mom’s twenty-minute tirade?

Do you pull your earbuds out and let the rush of the treads drown out her frustrated shouts?

Or do you slow to a crawl while you try to comfort her, and help her get over it?

Mistake #4: They Always Answer Questions Logically

One of the quickest ways to lose your dialogue in the “Forest of Boring” is to keep your back-and-forth predictable.

For example, here’s a scene from the Script of a terrible movie called The Room:

CLAUDETTE: I’m fine. What’s happening with you?

LISA: Nothing much.

CLAUDETTE: What’s wrong? Tell me.

LISA: I’m not feeling good today.

CLAUDETTE: Why not?

LISA: I don’t think I want to get married.                           

CLAUDETTE: Why not?

LISA: I don’t love him anymore.                                 

CLAUDETTE: Why not? Tell me why.

LISA: He’s boring.

Two things I want you to note from this:

    1. Whenever you feel bad about your writing, read this script. This is an actual movie. Somebody paid to make this. People paid to see it. You can do so much better.
    2. Stop answering every question.

One of (many) problems with this script is it lacks any kind of firepower. The questions are dull, and the answers are worse.  

How Do You Fix This?

Here’s a trick I learned that “sort of” employs Non Sequiturs. I call it the “Almost” Non Sequitur.

First… what is a Non Sequitur?

Non Sequitur (Latin): it does not follow.

Example of Non Sequitur dialogue:

“Hey are you hungry?”

“I’m not a fan of movies.”

The “Almost” Non Sequitur works like this:

Character A asks a question.

Character B responds with something that seems to not answer the question, but with enough subtext or hidden meaning to actually answer the question.

For example, we could fix the dialogue from The Room like this:

CLAUDETTE: I’m fine. What’s happening with you?

LISA: Have you ever cheated on someone before?

See how much shorter that is? See how quickly we can ramp up the tension and cut out all the slow, boring, obvious stuff?

Non Sequiturs and “Almost” Non Sequiturs allow you to shortcut the dull and jump right into the juicy stuff your readers actually care about.

Mistake #5: They Don’t Show “What’s at Stake”

I’ve been having a short story edited recently…

…as in, professionally edited.

And two things keep popping up:

    1. I need to show more of my characters’ emotions
    2. I keep forgetting about the stakes

Without stakes, you can’t have any tension. Readers need to know what your characters care about.

  • Is this the moment where Harry Potter thinks that Dumbledore is going to *finally* expel him and he will have to go back to his abusive Uncle and Aunt?
  • Is this the moment that Mr. Darcy will finally show his interest in Elizabeth Bennet, or is she doomed to live a life as a spinster?

How Do You Fix This?

Your readers must know what’s at stake for at least one of your characters in every conversation.

  1. Write out what your character wants. This is probably what your story revolves around in the first place.
  2. Think about the power dynamics between your characters. Does one person have something that the other wants? Who is the dominant force?
  3. Think about dialogue as a battle. Just because one person has the power at the beginning of the conversation, doesn’t mean they’ll keep it.

On #3 – Think about this scene with Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.

Vader is attempting to seduce Skywalker to the Darkside, but Luke has the upperhand, because he is strong and pure.

We know there is no way he will be seduced… Until those five fateful words:

“Luke. I am your Father.”

Remember! Death is NOT necessarily the ultimate stake.

There are many things worse than death… at least, when it comes to storytelling.

Fix These 5 Dialogue Mistakes

Emotion and tension will allow you to write more powerful dialogue.

With these five fixes in your arsenal, you will keep readers emotionally attached, and you’ll be able to skip past all the “boring parts” that ruin otherwise fantastic stories.

I’ve got a short writing exercise that will help you:

Writing Exercise

  1. Choose two of your characters.
  2. Give them a problematic situation.
  3. Put them on opposite sides of the problem.
  4. Set a timer for five minutes, and write out their dialogue, using the five fixes above.
  5. *Important:* when you are finished, I want you to go back through it and cut out ONE out of every THREE lines.

This will force your dialogue to speed up, and should help you remove the redundant, too-obvious lines.

Tell me how it went in the comments below!

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