Critique Technique, Part 28—Awkward Dialog

Ah, dialog. It’s hard for many writers to do well. When it works, it crackles, sings, inspires, enrages, chills, thrills. But when it doesn’t, does it ever show. It may be stiff and stilted, choppy or verbose, confusing or confused, the list goes on. Any or all of those characteristics can be acceptable, even necessary, when they reflect the character of the speaker. It’s when they don’t that there’s trouble.

There are many reasons for this. First off, dialog in writing—all writing: fiction, memoir, and non-fiction—is not natural, but has to sound natural when read, especially out loud. Real dialog includes pauses, repetitions, false starts, bad grammar, slang and jargon, incomplete sentences, and other problems.

Fictional dialog does, too, but with a difference: when written well, the author means for any of those things to be there, if they are. Fictional dialog is “better” than natural speech without seeming to be constructed, even though it is.

Perhaps even more than in narrative, every word must be the right word. Sentence structure must be just right to convey the proper degree of tension—from raving rage to the gentlest soothing. Every speaker must say just the right thing, especially when that’s just the wrong thing.

I could go on. Many authors have. There are dozens of books on writing effective dialog. That’s why this series of posts will have so many entries.

There’s no particular reason for starting the series with dialog that’s awkward, other than these problems are so common. The good news for you as a reviewer is that bad dialog calls attention to itself. You feel the problem as you read it. You find yourself saying, “Huh?” or “Get on with it, will you?” or even throwing the story across the room in frustration.

But let’s get a bit more specific about a few ways dialog can be awkward. We’ll start with dialog that is stiff or stilted.

First off, what do I mean by “stiff” and “stilted?” They’re very similar, so I need to be clear on how they’re different. Stiff dialog has these characteristics:

  • It is often too grammatically correct. Sentences are complete, with an explicit subject, verb, and object.
  • Sentences may be long and rambling (see below) or short and choppy, like this: “Bob went to the store. He bought a loaf of bread and a half-gallon of milk. He paid for them in cash.”
  • The speakers avoid using contractions, saying “I will” rather than “I’ll,” for example.
  • It’s emotionally flat, even when trying to express strong emotion, perhaps by avoiding the strong language that high emotion requires.
  • The pace never changes and often plods.

In short, stiff dialog sounds the way a robot in a bad science fiction movie would speak.

Stilted dialog is stiff, and then some. It adds extra degrees of formality, “expert” or erudite language (like that), and emotional distance between the speakers. Sentences in stilted writing (dialog or narrative) tend to be longer and more complex than they need to be and to use many words where few would do. The result can be something like this: “As you can see, madam, by virtue—or lack thereof—of your behavior, it shall be necessary for me to make inquiries into the nature and number of your previous liaisons with potential suitors in order that I may be better informed as to their, and your, morality and any potential indications of turpitude or depravity.”

As opposed to, “So, Alice, who’ve you been screwing lately?”

There are other ways writing can be unintentionally awkward.

  • Unclear personal pronoun references can be a real problem. When there are two characters of the same gender in a sentence or paragraph, referring to both of them with pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers) can leave the reader confused over which pronoun refers to which character.
  • Conversely, using the characters’ names over and over can be just as awkward. There’s no confusion over who’s being referred to but repeating the names doesn’t reflect natural speech patterns.
  • “Talking around” a topic, that is, using euphemisms or indirect language rather than coming out and naming the thing, can lead to real confusion for the reader, whether it’s the narrator or a character speaking.
  • Abnormal word order is a technique writers will use when they’re trying to make a character seem “foreign”—Yoda from the Star Wars movies—or uneducated. Used sparingly and in character, this technique can be fine. Use it too much, though, and the reader will struggle.

While I’ve concentrated on dialog here, awkward narrative shares all of these faults. The only difference is that it’s the narrator “speaking” directly or indirectly to the reader, rather than the reader listening in on a character’s thoughts or a conversation between two or more characters.

So what can you do to help repair awkward dialog or narrative? Here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage the author to read her work out loud before she submits it to you. Or, read the unedited work out loud to her so she can hear just how awkward it is. But don’t exaggerate the problems! Let the awkwardness speak for itself.
  • Help the writer loosen up his writing by breaking sentences up, varying their lengths, and creating sentence fragments.
  • Point out where the characters and narrator can and should use contractions.
  • Propose language that better expresses emotion.
  • Delete excess words and phrases or substitute shorter, punchier ones or ones that address a topic more clearly.
  • Put words into the normal, or a more natural, speaking order.

Awkward dialog or narrative will undermine a reader’s confidence in a writer perhaps faster than just about anything else. It’s immediately obvious. It’s also generally easy to fix, and as a reviewer, you’ll do your writer-friend a huge favor by helping them do so.

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