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They say my dialogue is weak. What do I do?

Fiction writers often talk as if we have to write in two completely different modes: dialogue, and everything else. There is a basic difference: while narration is, clearly, the writer's choice of words to convey a story, dialogue is trying to evoke how people who are not the writer actually speak. But if you've ever listened to recordings of real conversation - all ums and ers and going round in circles - you'll know that even the most naturalistic written dialogue is in fact very different. And by no means all fiction-writers and playwrights - who deal chiefly in dialogue - are even trying to evoke the normal sounds of real people talking. Naturalism is only one of our modes, and not always the most interesting one.

So, if you've had feedback that your dialogue is weak - or reading aloud reveals it to you - what does that mean? And what, once you've understood, might you do about it?

The characters don't sound like real people talking

  • Listen. Listen to yourself and to your family. Listen to children and old people and foreigners, listen to different social, ethnic and regional groups.
  • Listen like a writer: leave your headphones at home, buy a notebook you can hold in one hand, and eavesdrop on the bus, in the supermarket, in the interval, in the waiting room, on the news. Write down what you can and if you record on your phone, transcribe it by hand; it's in the writing-out that the rhythm, syntax, vocabulary and grammar get under your skin. Listen to how people talk to each other, and how the phrases change depending on the interlocutor: friend, stranger, enemy; young, old, learning disabled, genius, celebrity. 
  • Listen to radio drama, because that's closest kin to what we're doing: telling stories in speech with no pictures to help. You're allowed to put your headphones on for this one: use the iPlayer app to download a Radio 3 or Radio 4 play onto your phone and take it for a walk. Treat plays and films with caution: you're not trying to reproduce what another writer makes of real people's speech, but to study the how of it: how do they convey a boring person without being boring, how do they evoke someone who's blind drunk while making clear what the reader needs to know?
  • Read aloud good dialogue from the sort of novel you're trying to write. As with transcribing, it's using your physical body to work with the words which helps to train your own intuition for what works and what doesn't.
  • Listen for the music. You don't have to be writing London Road - the verbatim musical - to work with rhythm, cadence, pitch and pause. Notice it, and try reproducing it, as you might try singing a few bars of a tune you've heard.
  • Analyse and compare: when you hear something said in a surprising way, think about what's surprising: what would you have said to convey the same thing? When you hear something said with a strong emotion - compassion, hurry, anger, tenderness, scorn - think about how the words would be different if the feeling was different.
  • Learn to use punctuation properly, so you can use it expressively, and try to shake off the narrow kind of "correct" about syntax and grammar. What -- you don't know, well, what I'm talking about? You do really ... Don't look like that, it's same as you do when you're -- reach us that glass, would you -- I mean, it's the same as when you're trying to get work-writing out of your ears. Thank you. Like freewriting -- maybe try that? And same again? 

The characters sound like a real person, but always the same person
A radio producer told me that when he gets a new script the first thing he does is take a ruler, and cover up the left-hand side which shows which character says what. He then reads the play, and if he can't tell who says what without seeing the characters' name, he rejects the play. There are two aspects to solving this problem.

  • First, you probably don't know your characters well enough - indeed, finding it hard to make them speak is a classic tell-tale that you've got work to do - so try this post to develop your characters
  • Second, you can make the characteristics stronger quite cold-bloodedly, and then play up the differences. If one character is sometimes a bit hurried and scatty, don't only make them sound as hurried and scatty as possible, but make the person they talk to most often as slow-and-steady as possible. Both will become more individual, and seem even more individual still because they're up against each other - and individuality is the life-blood of character.
  • You could even make a chart: take a couple of sentences and work out how, at their most strongly characterised, each of your chief characters would say it.
  • Above all, ask the important voices some of my 17 Questions to Ask and Ask Again About Voice. 

The dialogue doesn't move the story onwards
Dialogue is fantastic for moving the story on, because in one sense a speech (in the theatrical sense: an utterance, not necessarily an oration) is action, by definition. Each speech-action has an effect to which the other character responds with another speech-action... or doesn't - which in a social species is in itself a response. But remember that each scene in your story is a necessary unit of change; how does the chain of speech-action and speech-reaction make that change happen? Does it lead onwards, or zig-zag about? The latter may be convincing to real life, but remember that that the ship is always trying to get somewhereif you do make the conversation divert, you need to do it in a way which doesn't dissipate what's important about the scene, but creates suspense about the important thing and its outcome. Thinking about fortunately-unfortunately will also help.

I've been told I've written "ping-pong" dialogue, with no subtext
I first heard this phrase as being about the "talking-heads" effect, when the speech-action loses touch with the place, space and bodies who are involved with it. More about that here. Then I discovered that it's a scriptwriter's insult, meaning that the characters are saying exactly what they actually think and feel, and responding to other people in the same terms. Whereas, of course, in real life we don't do that. So:

  • As playwrights know, everything said has a sub-text which is variably different from the overt text. It might simply be that that the subtext is ruder or more polite, simpler or more complex than what is said. But it might actually be directly opposite: the flattering words that are insulting an enemy to pick a fight, the insults which are teasing a loved one to seduce them.
  • So it's well worth thinking, again in acting terms, about what the speaker is consciously trying to make happen with the speech. And unconsciously? The theatre calls working on the character dynamics at this level "actioning", and it's all about finding the right verb to describe it. There's more on this here.
  • What's more, since humans often can and do read under the lines as well as between them, people often answer the subtext of a speech rather than the surface text, or skip a link in the logic. Your partner comes into the kitchen and says, "Shall we go to France, not Italy, this year?" and you say, "Mind out, I need to get to the sink." Your small child says "When is supper?" and you say, "There are some biscuits in the tin."
  • And of course, how the other character reacts to your not-ping-pong answer will vary: you might have just meant "Hang on till I've drained this saucepan", and the partner might just realise it's not the right moment. But they might resent your apparent lack of interest, or even take it as a delaying tactic - especially if you've already had a row about whether you can actually afford a holiday this year. The hungry child might happily go to the biscuits, with the problem that underlay their question solved. But an orderly-minded child who likes to feel that their day is made of known quantities might be angry that you haven't answer their real question and therefore their real need.
  • Now that this apparent mis-match of speech and subtexts among characters has arisen, how does that play out in the scene? Does the child go into meltdown? Does the partner wonder whether to take their secret lover away instead? Before the writer (and then the reader) knows where they are, there's a nice little fortunately-unfortunately circuit getting going, and the narrative drive has got a lot stronger.

The dialogue repeats the action or vice versa

  • Don't double-up: if a character describes in detail the coffee they'd like, don't also Show us the detail of the making of it. Choose which is best here, and shrink the other to a simple Tell that it happened.
  • Don't put important things in a speech, and then carefully explain the importance, or clutter it with explain-y speech tags: trust your reader to get it from the speech
  • Radio playwrights sometimes struggle not to write things like "This gun that I have here in my right hand is loaded", because the listener needs to know it. We have a narrator to do that necessary work for us. Use it.

The characters talk about dull stuff

  • Work at ways to summarise the parts of a dialogue scene which we may need to know happened, but we don't need to be shown blow-by-blow.
  • If we need to know the actual words, use the reported-speech form of free indirect style to convey what people say, in their voice, but as part of the narrative; there's much less of a change of gear than when the narrative switches to and fro from actual dialogue, and so it will read more smoothly and swiftly.
  • If it's still dull, chances are the scene doesn't need to be shown: murder that darling, and slide anything essential into another scene which does need to be shown.

The characters talk in slabs

  • Remember that putting a slab of information inside speech marks does not hide the fact that it's a slab. This might be a case for your narrator as a storyteller to Tell the story in a Showy way.
  • Remember that people don't actually just sit there and spout: we are physical beings and there will always be physical action to parallel the speech action. Use it, either to parallel the emotions and thoughts, or to counterpoint it. Use the other character, too.
  • More about that in this post, which starts from a common problem: the character needs to tell another character necessary stuff, but it's really, really boring for the reader.

The reader gets in a muddle about who says what

  • Strengthen the difference in the voices, so we just intuitively hear the right person saying it. Think about that radio producer.
  • In a two-hander dialogue a good rule of thumb is that there should be something to tell us who said a speech, ever five speeches. With more actors on stage, the reader will need more help.
  • The help needn't be a speech tag; it might be someone saying the other's name, or commenting on the other's action, or something else which makes things clear. It can just be an action by the speaker, but it should be on the same line as the speech. My students' MS are covered with me writing,"Who says this?" on standalone lines of dialogue which are adrift from what's meant to be an attributing action on the next (or previous) line.
  • Don't let the speech go on too long before you give the reader any help they need. If the reader hears a touching speech about Rover's last, heartbreaking sigh in Uncle Henry's quavering voice, only to discover after ten lines that it was actually battleaxe Aunt Martha who said, "I felt his tender little heart beat its last under my hand", then not only have you wrong-footed us and so weakened our response, you've wrecked the unit of change, which is the big reveal that scary Aunt Martha has an achilles heel.
  • For what it's worth, I'd rarely let the speech run for more than a line and a half or so, without any necessary help. And I exploit the slight lift/pause that the speech tag or action gives, as part of the speaker's rhythm and a chance for a teeny, tiny bit of suspense. Think of how an actor would perform the line, and slot the tag in to suit. 

If your narrative and dialogue voices are heightened in some way, not straightforwardly naturalistic - baroquely elaborate, strongly Trainspottingy, from the planet Vargon, near-monosyllabic, historical - then do it whole-heartedly. You are far more likely to take the reader with you. Also, this quality is going to be central to the overall "voice" and style of the novel, so do be consistent in what part of the narrative universe your story belongs to, and make sure both narrative and dialogue suit it. Dickens' characters have astonishingly individual voices, but they're all part of narrative which is consistently playful, evocative, and slightly over-the-top. He was insanely confident, and so he never chickens out.

Historical dialogue has its particular challenges

  • Remember you're not forging documents, you're writing fiction for readers now: you're after evocation and perhaps verisimiltude, definitely not pastiche and reproduction.
  • Decide how "historical" or "modern" you want your people to sound - what your dialogue's relationships to the speech of the time, and to our speech now, will be - and be consistent about its distance from each.
  • Don't get hung up on exactly when words came into use: what matters is that the reader feels that they're right for the period. That may, indeed, mean leaving out words which were in fact in use, if modern readers won't believe you. 
  • Do lots and lots of reading of the voices of the period - letters, diaries, fiction written then, plays, films made then: read aloud, copy out, download scripts, do what it takes to get it into your fingers, and also analyse: how sentences are built, how words are used. But, again: you are not forging documents.
  • Do lots of analytical reading of historical fiction of the sort that you want to write. As with listening, read for the how of the writer's response and reflection of the historical sources. Then go to those sources, and respond and reflect as you-the-writer needs to.

And, one last thought: don't forget to edit dialogue as ruthlessly as you do narrative. One of the dangers of feeling that it's in some way "other" from narrative is that once it's written, it can seem like a given: this is what these people say. But, as I hope this post shows, it still needs work of the same microscope-y sort as narrative, and only when that's done will it really be working as it should in your story.