When I served as an instructor for an International Correspondence Writing School, I carried the maximum load of students allowed by the school. For nine years, my office was full of student file folders. I loved it. These were my babies; and they came from all parts of the country. Some from overseas.
Those nine years of constant editing of student lessons gave me great insight into beginner bugaboos. One of those bugaboos had to do with writing dialogue. I came to call it “stuttering dialogue disease.”
This disease afflicted the beginning writer who felt that any exchange between two characters served as sufficient dialogue. It could be as stiff and wooden as the following.
“Hello, Charlie,” said Nikki. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh hello, Nikki,” Charlie answered. “I could ask you the same question.”
“But I asked first,” Nikki said, accusingly.
“So you did,” Charlie said. “But I don’t owe you an explanation.”
What’s lacking here? A great deal.
What’s lacking (among other things) is rhythm, personality, purpose, and action.
This dialogue goes nowhere. It seems to serve no purpose. The characters are not leaping off the page. We have no sense of personality in these exchanges. Nikki and Charlie are what I call cutout cardboard characters.
Pages of such dialogue in constant repetition, quickly loses the reader. The novice novelist has come under the false illusion that such dialogue is working, when, sadly, it is not.
When I refer to this as stuttering dialogue disease, I don’t mean the characters are stuttering, rather, the dialogue itself stutters, sputters, and dies.
What’s the solution? Many solutions are possible, but let’s just look at two.
Dialogue on the manuscript page can look so authentic. All those nice little quote marks and tag lines. But how do the lines sound read aloud? Argh. That can be a great litmus test.
Move the Story Forward
As you read the dialogue, the questions to constantly ask yourself are:
- Do these lines of dialogue add to the telling of the story?
- Do these lines of dialogue move the story forward?
- Do these lines of dialogue allow characters to spring to life?
Writing dialogue can be one of the most fun parts of novel writing. It’s where you get to know your characters more intimately. Invest the time to write the best dialogue possible. You’ll never regret it.
If you want a great training exercise, get hold of a few play scripts. Read them aloud and soak your inner ear in the cadence and the nuances of the characters speaking. It will strengthen your dialogue writing abilities.
Try it and see if it doesn’t help!
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