Exactly what it says on the tin, chums. We’ve covered character tropes, bad metaphors and genre boundaries. Today, I’ll be covering five ways of writing dialogue that can harm a reader’s experience. Again, I’m writing today as a reader/viewer, not so much as a storyteller myself, and under the right circumstances, anything I say could be wrong.
Let us begin!
5. Wait… What’s Going On?
‘But it’s my car!’
‘You’re not allowed to drive it.’
‘She’s right. Come inside.’
‘You stay out of it! I’m just going to the shop!’
‘You’ll get in trouble.’
‘Just what we need today.’
‘I’m sure we can all find a way to -‘
‘You shut up!’
The absence of dialogue tags makes this very confusing to read. We can’t tell how many people are in this scene. We can’t tell who is saying what. We can’t picture their actions, or where they are.
Some (arrogant) writers seem to think that if you only have two people in a scene, it’s acceptable to leave dialogue tags out. Their characters’ voices are just so distinctive that only an idiot could get them confused, in which case, you aren’t smart enough for such a work of genius. Other writers have been berated for using dialogue tags too often, and too repetitively. In trying to avoid ‘he said, she said’ – or ‘he exclaimed, she moaned, he muttered’ – they leave them out altogether, and the reader loses track.
There are several simple, unobtrusive ways to show who is speaking.
There’s the basic dialogue tag: ‘But it’s my car!’ Betty shouted.
‘You’ll get in trouble,’ said Jim.
‘Just what we need today,’ said Tessa sarcastically.
There’s the simultaneous or concurrent action: ‘You’re not allowed to drive it,’ said Mona, laying a gentle hand on her sister’s shoulder.
And there’s the sentence describing the action, in the same line break as the dialogue: Betty jabbed her brother with a painted talon. ‘You shut up!’
A novel shouldn’t read like post-post-modern experimental theatre.
4. Forrena Tork
She bounced into the arrivals hall, apparently unaffected by her eleven-hour flight. As she waved at me across the room, her sexy Australian twang sent my heart into double-time.
”Ope y’ wernt whitin’ lawng! Go’ delyed’t bluddy Bangkok!’
This one annoys me so much, especially when it’s applied to MY accent by American and British writers. I know it’s not objectively the worst on this list, but man, is it frustrating. (And this extent of exaggeration makes the character in the above example sound like a scruffy bogan, which kind of undermines her supposed attractiveness.)
Part of what makes it annoying is that the reader has to sound out the character’s every word to make sense of what they’re saying. But the other – possibly more sinister – thing about it is that it seems to suggest that one dialect is inherently superior to another. In writing the ‘accent’ this way, the author subtly says, ‘my way of speaking is the proper way, and yours is weird and wrong.’ It’s often used to alienate the reader from characters who belong to a marginalised class or race.
It’s ultimately unnecessary, too, because you can do a lot with just a few words. A sprinkling of idiosyncratic pronunciations can convey character just as well, as can their syntax and vocabulary. (The same goes for speech impediments.) I use accents a lot, but I try to make them easy to read. I try to make the grammar and syntax suggest a character’s accent, more than the spelling, whether they’re lower-class:
‘I ain’t done nothing, I swear! […] One of ’em just scuttled out at me, with the claws all like a scorpion, and I bolted!’
… or don’t share a native tongue with the other characters:
‘Boat going back and forward, more safer than side-and-side. You help me.’
There’s one exception, though, if you ask me. That’s when the author writes out their own accent like this, as in Trainspotting and other works which immerse us deeply in a community with a certain dialect. There, the point isn’t to say, ‘your way is wrong,’ but to put the reader out of their comfort zone. This is their English, and now you, with your ideas of how language is supposed to look, are out of place. In this way, it can help you sympathise with the characters. It can also be flat-out funny, as when Malay writer/musician Antares describes Malay English:
‘Aitelyu-ah, nemmain wat debladigarmen say, mose Malaysians tok Manglish… Donkair you Malay or Chinese or Indian or everyting miksup… we orways tok like dis, wankain oni…’
But Antares can do this because he’s Malaysian himself. He’s not speaking from a position of privilege, pointing out ‘how poorly the inferior brown people speak’ or anything. He’s speaking from within the culture, making a comedic point about the differences between English and Manglish. I couldn’t speak from the same position, so if I were to write a character who speaks Manglish, I’d do it like this:
‘I tell you-ah, never mind what the bloody gov’ment say, most Malaysians talk Manglish… Don’t care you Malay or Chinese or Indian or everything mix-up… we always talk like this, one kind only.’
There’s a similar, more obnoxious variation of this trope…
3. Books Don’t Have Subtitles
The three-eyed insectoid leaned against the doorframe, barring our entrance. ‘Skrakkle chi’ttit ka’xen?’
Corporal Vista cleared her throat. ‘Klik’k’kwik skak chak’ik khatich.’
Grudgingly, the alien moved aside, and I followed Vista into the bar.
If writers want readers to understand what characters are saying, they ought to write the dialogue in the same language as the rest of the work.
A few quirks in the dialogue, such as a lack of tenses or a particular level of formality, can capture the flavour and grammatical structure of a language (real or otherwise). They may also reflect certain cultural values. For instance, in Vietnamese, many expressions relate to food and eating: a good sleep is a ‘delicious sleep’, to enjoy a party is to ‘eat the party’, a kind person doesn’t have a good heart but a ‘good belly’.
Words unique to the world or culture can be useful. A novel set in Japan wouldn’t be convincing without a little Nihon-go. An historical novel lacking in the parlance of the time would be like to the work of a dithering saddle-goose! And I love inventing slang that fits the world of my characters. It can make a world seem more three-dimensional and lively. ‘Shlanger’, ‘half-life’, ‘guzzolene’ and ‘shiny/chrome’ in Fury Road are easy enough to puzzle out; much of the slang in the film is clearly based on a combination of dated Aussie slang and terms related to cars. 1984 has the memorable ‘double-plus good’, ‘Thought Police’ and ‘memory hole’. Adventure Time uses an amusing combination of gibberish, modern slang and mathematical phrases, resulting in ‘Aw, rhombus!’ and ‘She’s gone totes banoons’.
But there’s an important difference between colourful slang and complete nonsense. Slang in fiction follows certain rules. Its use in context makes the meaning clear, or it’s clearly derived from an existing word, or it’s an entire existing word with slightly different usage (‘awesome’ used to mean ‘inspiring fearful wonder’, after all).
If the dialogue is supposed to be impenetrable, have our point-of-view character unable to make sense of it! In the example above, our narrator could have said that the alien spoke ‘in a series of harsh chitinous clicks‘ if he didn’t understand it, or ‘… and said in Krikk, ‘What is your business here?’ if he did. Turning to a glossary, or to Google Translate, breaks the reader’s immersion. Making up entire languages shouldn’t really be attempted by anybody without a pretty solid grasp of linguistics anyway. It often ends up sounding like the language I invented with my sister at the age of nine, with English phonemes and grammar combined to sound like a child’s idea of another language: Tokto nu meena lu Salaluga.
And any writer who assumes everyone reading should be fluent in the same four languages as them can go to hell.
2. Isn’t It a Beautiful Moon, Gregory?
(GERALDINE sits in a deck chair and sips her gin and tonic.)
GERALDINE: Isn’t it a beautiful moon, Gregory?
GREGORY: Reminds me of a Ritz cracker.
GERALDINE: Well, I think it’s beautiful. Have you ever seen it so orange? It reminds me of your brother. He had such marvellous ears. Such a shame about the Rottweiler attack. Did he ever find out what happened to his car?
GREGORY: I never said Ritz crackers weren’t beautiful.
GERALDINE: Well, you don’t have to be like that.
GREGORY: Like what?
GERALDINE: I just said it was a beautiful moon.
GREGORY: I didn’t mean anything by it. I just said it reminds me of a cracker.
GERALDINE: You and your damn crackers.
GREGORY: Think I’ll get some.
GERALDINE: Some what?
GERALDINE: That would be nice.
GREGORY: You don’t want crackers?
GERALDINE: Bring them out. And the hummus too.
(… and so on for the next ten minutes.)
I’m not a huge fan of plays about nothing. Nor do I particularly enjoy family dramas in literary fiction conveyed in little banal exchanges like this. Yes, the minor inflections in our everyday exchanges of pleasantries can convey a lot about character, and the state of a relationship, and so on. Yes, real conversation is sometimes boring and repetitive.
But I didn’t fork out twenty-five bucks for this book, or this seat, just to be subjected to the same blathering I can hear at the next table at my local cafe.
I don’t need to hear or read the hello, how are you, oh I’m good, you? , busy, sorry I’m late, oh that’s okay, can I get you a drink?, etc. If there are two regular people, talking in a very normal, everyday way about things that don’t matter a jot, it’s just not interesting to me. You can tell me it’s art ’til you’re blue in the face – it won’t make a difference to me.
On the other hand, if there’s a twist to it, I’ll pay attention:
Astara danced into the laboratory, robes whirling about her legs, and hauled the lid off the holding pit. ‘Good morning, Lord Ezathoth! How was your night?’
Scales scraped the stone walls of the old well. YOUR SOUL SHALL BE CONSUMED PIECEMEAL.
‘Oh, you!’ said Astara, chuckling. ‘Is there anything I can get you? Coffee? Orange juice?’
I DESIRE ONLY YOUR SCREAMS OF AGONY.
‘Okay, so you’re a tea guy.’ She lifted a few grime-encrusted beakers from the cupboard and waved away a pantry moth. ‘Green, black or liquorice?’
The thing in the pit gave a fetid sigh. BLACK. I SUPPOSE.
Dialogue is a useful tool for building character and driving the plot forward. Characters can seduce one another, lie, argue, joke around, teach new skills, insult each other, give crucial commands or figure out mysteries through dialogue. Small talk rarely does any of those things.
1. As You Know, This Is Purely Exposition.
Beverly took a bite out of her muffin. ‘As you know, Barbara, I have been like a second mother to you, and want to protect you. Things just haven’t been the same since Father died, have they?’
‘No,’ replied Barbara. ‘You’ve been unusually reticent of late, and your husband, Richard, has been mysteriously absent on Saturday nights.’
‘You were always the more intuitive of the two of us,’ said Beverly with a sigh. ‘Tell me again why your blonde, impetuous, seventeen-year-old daughter Anastasia hasn’t been speaking to you.’
Characters shouldn’t tell each other things that both of them should already know.
Or rather, if they do, they should do so to insult one another’s intelligence, to avoid doing so, to berate one another for not listening, or some other reason required by the plot. Under no circumstances should they be dumping information like this, just to fill the audience in. You can practically hear the clang of the exposition landing on the reader’s head.
Sometimes it can be difficult in speculative genres to convey information about the world of the story. A writer may find themselves needing to explain how magic or technology works. But dialogue between two characters who should already know about said magic or technology is never the place for it! If exposition absolutely must be conveyed in dialogue, it should be serving more than one purpose. A character with established knowledge of the thing being described could be excited to share it with a newcomer, or annoyed at having to explain something so basic. This reflects how they feel towards the newcomer character, and perhaps the topic under discussion. Or perhaps a conceited character is giving an incorrect explanation of something, and our hero, who knows better, is performing mental corrections.
There’s another reason to avoid this clunky exposition, too. Sentences like ‘As your eldest sister, I want to protect you’ or ‘Of course you can trust me; I’m your best friend’ are totally acceptable, as long as they are blatant lies. If not meant to be construed as lies, they still come off as dishonest, because characters shouldn’t be telling each other things they already know.
As ya know, this’s the end ‘f this week’s poast. Ull see ya nex’ Chooseday f’r anotha instawlment ‘f moi 素晴らしい物語のマシン！