Writing Mistakes of My Younger Self: Awkward Dialogue

Hello and welcome! This article is the fourth part of a new, five-post series I’m doing on the blog. I recently unearthed a copy of the novel manuscript I wrote when I was 13 and reread parts of it. With the editing abilities I’ve gained in the last decade, I’ll be analyzing the major flaws in my manuscript in hopes of helping myself and other writers avoid the same pitfalls.

Writing mistakes 4

Ah, yes, Major Flaw #4: Awkward Dialogue. Sadly, even many published novels and produced movies feature awkward dialogue, a testament to just how difficult dialogue can be to write.

The best and easiest advice for writing good dialogue is: after you write it, read. it. out. loud. You’ve probably heard this a million times. I know I have, and I still forget to do it. A lot of other writers forget too, if the manuscripts I’ve seen are any indication. But seriously, hearing your dialogue spoken will clue you in to anything unnatural about it.

You could pen the most fantastic novel ever written, but if readers hit a scene with awkward dialogue, they’ll be jarred right out of the story. As you’ve figured out by now, my old manuscript is far from being fantastic, and I found myself laughing over most of my dialogue scenes. Because I had way too much dialogue to begin with, and far too little action (see the previous post), there was plenty to laugh about.

I’ll give you an example straight from the pages of my dear old manuscript. There is one part where two characters, one older and more mature than the other, are discussing a calamity that has befallen their country. The older character says to the younger, “‘You appear to be a very capable young man. You seem to have kept your head, even with all this trauma. You have my respect.’”

I can’t help grinning as I type those lines. In defense of my younger self, I was aiming for a medieval fantasy tone and trying to make this character sound wise. But let’s be honest, no one—even a medieval sage—would talk this way. It’s hilariously cheesy, not to mention verbose. Besides, respect is something that is shown through behavior, not by telling someone you respect them. My manuscript would have been better if I just let the older character’s actions and facial expressions indicate his respect for the younger.

This is the most obvious form of awkward dialogue: writing dialogue that doesn’t sound right, no matter who is saying it. But some dialogue sounds awkward just because it’s said by the wrong character. You wouldn’t expect my medieval characters to talk like American Southerners, for example.

Different regions in the world—both the real world and fantasy worlds—have different dialogue patterns. Idioms are different, as well as the terms used to describe certain things (for example, “soda” versus “pop”). You don’t have to make yourself crazy trying to plan out each character’s dialogue, but if you describe a character as hailing from a particular region, readers will expect the character’s dialogue to be written accordingly.

One quick note: if your character is from a region where words are often slurred and contractions are common, do NOT write out every one of those. Just use a sprinkling of them in the dialogue so readers get the idea. There’s such a thing as making dialogue so accurate that it doesn’t read smoothly. Let’s be honest, how many of our real conversations would sound right if they were transferred to paper verbatim? I’ve heard before that writing good dialogue isn’t about writing completely accurate dialogue, but about creating the illusion of real dialogue.

Research comes in handy for making characters sound right. Not only can you find articles about word usage in different parts of the world, but thanks to websites like YouTube, you can access videos featuring people from every corner of the globe. Watch interviews or TV shows with someone from the region you want your character to reflect, and take notes on what you notice about their speech patterns.

Finally, a certain amount of dialogue awkwardness can come from flowery dialogue tags. I’m always being reminded by my writing mentors to avoid complex dialogue tags, such as, “breathed,” “ejaculated,” “bragged,” and so on. Most of the time, a simple “said” works better. I’m not saying to never use the more descriptive tags, because sometimes they do add to the dialogue. However, it’s best to use them sparingly because they can easily get overpowering. When you can, write a line of action instead of a dialogue tag to give the reader a better impression of the movements and facial expressions accompanying the words.

What experience have you had with this writing pitfall? Leave me a comment below!

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