Thursday, July 31, 2014

Snoozing over tired dialogue

Hiya! Lisa speaking. Tehe, I'm speaking about speaking!

Dialogue doesn't get talked about very much in the writersphere, and when it does, it seems to me that the discussion is about getting the wording right/age appropriate and having too much or too little dialogue. So when I recently come across three different bits of dialogue that I'm really tired of hearing, I wondered what I could have my characters saying that has also exhausted its welcome. Help me out here. What are you tired of hearing from characters' mouths be it movies or books?

Here's my list:
1. "I don't normally do this / I'm not the type who usually does this kind of thing"
She says before hopping in bed with someone she just met. BTW, I'm not slut-shaming. Do the new guy. I don't care. Just find something different to say.

2. "I have a bad feeling about him/her/this."
SO many characters are psychic nowadays...except they're not.

3. "I'd like that."
She says when he asks her out / asks to call her later. WHO SAYS THAT IN REAL LIFE? Nobody unless they're mimicking a Lifetime movie.

4. "Toto, we're not in Kansas/Texas/Florida anymore."
It's not witty anymore either.

Dan: What a great topic, Lisa! I agree that dialogue is hard and you don't see many craft articles about it. What I'm trying to say is, I have a good feeling about this! Rule of thumb: If you've written a line of dialogue that you might hear in a B-list movie, it's probably cliché. Example #2 above illustrates this perfectly. Other tired dialogue clichés that I see often:

  • A character whose role in the conversation is only to prompt another character to talk more / explain things to the reader: "Why?" "And why is that?" "What do you mean?". 
  • Exposition disguised as dialogue, or even worse, dialogue delivering tons of backstory: "As you know, Frodo, Sauron is the root of all evil." (Tolkien didn't do this, of course). Tad Williams is one of my favorite authors but he did this a lot in The Dragonbone Chair.
  • Characters who talk without contractions. Unless they're royalty, it doesn't mirror reality.
Tired dialogue often doesn't sound like something you'd overhear in a coffee shop. Real conversations are kind of ugly. Probably too ugly to mimic precisely. The right balance is probably somewhere in between. One of the masters of dialogue, in my opinion, is Ernest Hemingway. Go read some of his short stories. "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is a good place to start.

Karlie: I really hate it when an author tries to make dialogue too dialect-heavy. Like this: "Lookee hyar, Gal, ya don' wanna mess up ya whole life like Ah did."
Sadly, this is not an exaggeration. It may give a clear picture of how uneducated Marv is, but it's a lot of work for the reader. And pages of dialogue that looks like this? Forget it. I'm done before I even got started.
We can still draw a clear picture without being annoying: "I done messed my whole life up, Gal."

And those awful one-liners really need to be put out of their misery:

1. "I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."
Seriously? Maybe this was funny once, but it has LONG since lost its appeal.

2. "Shut up and kiss me."
So says every single romantic comedy out there, and about 50% of everything else.

3. "Don't you die on me!"
If I had a dollar for every time I heard that...I'd still be counting my money.

And for the grand finale...

4. "It's quiet, isn't it," Bob said. 
"Yeah. A little too quiet."
And this is immediately followed by things getting unquiet.

Don't get me wrong - I find myself still using these. I doubt if there's a writer out there who doesn't. But we're learning quickly that some things should never make it past the first draft, LOL.

Caitlin: I will definitely admit that I have done some of these. Not using contractions is a really big problem for me, though I hope I'm getting better at catching myself. (See, I just used "I'm" instead of "I am"! And yes, I want a cookie for that... :) ).

I think all the ones you all brought up are great. I especially hate when the heroine tells the hero to shut up and kiss her. If you want to kiss him so bad, stop chit chatting and kiss him! And, Lisa, I completely agree with you on not only the dialogue but the troupe of the girl who would never ever ever have a one night stand...until she does! (I would go so far as to say that that in itself is a wee bit of slut shaming because it's basically saying "don't worry, this character IS good, because she normally doesn't have sex.")

One thing I struggle with in dialogue is sounding a certain age or a certain gender while still being original. Yeah, maybe most 22-year-olds don't say something my character would say, but that's what makes her quirky. Or maybe most guys don't talk that way, but that male character isn't like most guys. It's a delicate balance for sure, trying not to stretch beyond believability while still having your characters sound fresh, i.e., not just like every other person in that demographic. It's something I'm still working on, for sure.

HELP US OUT! Writers and readers, tell us what you think is beginning to be overdone so authors can steer clear.


  1. "It's not you, it's me." I want to stab my eye every time I read this line. Be original! Even "I lack maturity, and you are perfect in every way," is better than the first line. (Although this line is still rubbish.)

    Great discussion!

    1. Great one! The cliches, they kill me. But they're still around, so best keep sharp objects away when you're reading :)

  2. Both of you are absolutely right! These lines are so tired I'M dropping off to sleep, LOL. Thank you both for stopping by!

  3. Agreed. I can't think of any new ones myself at the moment but, like most authors, I've used a few of those cliche lines too. The lines are so well-known that they just pop into my head but I usually (sometimes) delete or reword bad sentences like those in the second draft stage.
    Thanks for the post! Very insightful.

    1. Yes, the second draft is spent editing...and cringing at bad wording. :)