My Top Three Pet Peeves in the Dialogue of Self-published Work
Having read many self-published books recently, I’ve encountered three jarring habits among these authors that rip me right from my enjoyment of reading. To be honest, I have been guilty of them all as well at some point in my writing, and I hope to offer some advice to steer clear of these pitfalls. And so…
1a) Natural Dialogue
There are many facets to this dilemma so I’ll start out slow. First off, there seems to be a notion that all dialogue should sound realistic. I don’t know where this started or why anyone gives it credence. If you look at any of your favorite books, from Catcher in the Rye to Crime and Punishment, none of the speaking is natural. It is all highly scripted for full effect. I think where the confusion comes up is that dialogue should have a natural tone to it. Now, how is that different?
Well, let me first clarify what dialogue blows. Here is an example from a recent book I read.
“Hello,” his grandfather said.
“Hi,” he said from his bed, “How are you?”
“I’m good, but it looks like you’ve taken a beating.”
“I don’t think it’ll work,” he said.
“Really? Why?” she asked.
Yes, this is the way we may speak—but no one wants to read it. The key point comes at the end when the grandfather starts talking about the beating. If so, why not start there.
As for the second example, it is not as bad as the first, but I wanted to show that even a useful prompt like ‘Why?’ can be blended into an action done by the character, thus making the scene more lively.
The worst offense of all is to use ellipses. (…) If it is not showing weakness in voice, ie. ‘I…I didn’t mean to kill him,’ then you are off-putting the reader. As in: ‘I was going to eat…what the?’ This is wrong on so many levels that the best advice is to just avoid it.
Solution: In this one instance, break the writing hallmark—Show, don’t tell—and just tell us. Change it from direct speech to reported. If not that, cut the intro stuff out.
After acknowledging one another, his grandfather leaned over with one eye half shut, and said, “Looks like you’ve taken a beating.”
“I don’t think it’ll work,” he said.
She tilted her head as if to say ‘why?’
1b) Unnatural Dialogue
Moving on…when they say make it sound natural—whoever these ‘they’ are—they mean to have the language resemble our patterns of speech. Even though this blog post is structured with easily identifiable sentences, most of the time when we speak, we throw out key words that we assume our listener will insert. In other words, don’t write perfect sentences all the time for your characters to say. For example:
“You ate it?” she said, staring at him wide-eyed.
“Yeah. Had two of them.”
Here you can see the female did not use a proper question format. She should’ve said ‘Did you eat it?’ and the boy’s response should’ve been ‘Yeah. I had two of them.’ But in both cases, certain aspects were cut out to sound natural.
Solution: listen to how you and your friends speak. Even on TV, no one speaks one hundred percent clear sentences. The best way to fix this in your writing is the secret all writers should know: editing. Go back through your work and ask yourself, does this sound too perfect?
Sidenote: Be careful! Too many imperfect sentences will express to the reader that your characters are either nitwits or people who don’t know the language well, so avoid overuse of this phenomenon.
2) Boring Dialogue
Another problem: flat scenes with lackluster dialogue. So make it pop! Dialogue is the meat of the story. This is where readers enjoy themselves the most because we see the conflict unfold in front of our eyes. If it isn’t powerful or too wordy or too bland, your whole story will sink. Like all writing books say: there needs to be tension.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” the captain said, tossing a wrist in her direction.
“But there is. A large tropical storm is coming this way,” she shouted.
“I’m sure it’ll blow over.”
“All my data says otherwise,” she said, straining her voice.
“The weather channel seems to know nothing about this,” he added.
Although it may seem like something dramatic is happening here, the dialogue doesn’t show it. There’s nothing on the line and just by denying the claims of another doesn’t make us feel tension.
Solution: Like always, edit! The best way to catch these problems is to read your work, not with the words in mind, but with the push and pull between characters. If there is no hidden info or bad feelings between the two speaking, you might be looking at a problem. If so, trust your ‘quality’ instincts. Hopefully, you’ve developed some.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” the captain said tossing a wrist in her direction.
“Five thousands lives on a boat—are you say that’s nothing to worry about?” she snapped.
“Of course not. All I’m saying is that these storms come by all the time and cause little problems.”
She glared at him.
“All it takes is one time to be wrong,” she muttered.
3) Repetitive Dialogue
My last peeve is repetition. I too have had this problem. I believe it comes out of a desire to have the reader fully in the know, or I just get too caught up in my head that I don’t realize I’ve already hashed (and sometimes rehashed) certain information. Any dialogue, that is just a rerun of something before, will instantly feel dry and boring, and this will lose the reader’s attention. Following the example from above, if we were to jump two pages and read:
She ran to the second in command and said, “The storm is coming closer. We have to do something!”
“That?” he scoffed, “It’s some dark clouds. We see them all the time.”
She shook her head, frustrated and grabbed the CB from his hand to radio shore.
“This typhoon will hit us soon,” she shouted.
The CB sounded back, “All our data shows no reason for concern.”
Here we see the main character plea to two different sources after addressing the captain, and their responses are similar—do we really need a retelling of this information? By saying it again and again that no one wants to heed her warnings the suspense and tension are dashed. Repetition destroys story-telling.
Solution: The first thing to do is try cutting it. I know, I know, most authors despise this, but a good eye can tell if this is necessary or not. Sometimes trimming it can ramp up the plotting. However, if repetition is needed to show how the character is running into the same brick wall or the same type of response, the best way is to either internalize it by having the character express it in their head, or summarize it.
She couldn’t believe it. Everyone she spoke to had the same response. Maybe it was part of the job, part of having power over something bigger than they could understand that made them dismiss warnings, or maybe, it was just negligence. Either way, she knew her effort was being wasted.
After the captain, she tried the second in command and even radioed ashore. In the end, she found no receptive ears for her warning. The storm was going to hit and their boat was going to be unprepared.
All in all, there is nothing wrong if you find some writing like this in your story. Just hopefully, with some crude editing, it’ll be cut or re-sharpened into something a little more poignant and sparkling. Truth be told, I can’t think of any dialogue that doesn’t start out poor and doesn’t get an awesome makeover after some serious editing. Get your red pens out!