The 6 Most Common Mistakes When Writing Dialogue and How to Avoid Them

Time now to brush up on our skills. Which reminds us that, whatever you do with your dialog, TVWriter™ can absolutely guarantee that it’ll be much, much better if you shorten it. That’s right. Whatever your characters just said, make them say less.

What do you think, Laura Harrington?:

 by Laura Harrington

Photo1-300x224“You can write the sharpest, most glittering, wisest, poetic, hilariously dazzling dialogue, but if that dialogue doesn’t do its true work and open the dramatic world underneath, it’s dead on arrival.” John Guare, author of Six Degrees of Separation, House of Blue Leaves, and one of my favorite titles of all time, Bosoms and Neglect.

True confessions: As a playwright – and as a novelist – it drives me crazy when dialogue is the poor stepchild in a book. So I get a little worked up about it and I can sound kind of crabby. Please bear with me. I think writing great dialogue is critically important and I believe that if you tune up your ears to good dialogue, that skill for voicing will inform all of your writing.

Why does it matter? Great dialogue makes a good book even better. Dialogue that’s really working can move your plot along almost effortlessly. Less than great dialogue can undermine our belief in your characters and our interest in the world you’ve created. How does that happen? Every time a reader thinks: That’s awkward, or: That’s not how people talk, you’ve chipped away at what you’ve so carefully created: your reader’s belief that these characters are real.

In addition, dialogue can be a wonderful way to elegantly reveal back-story or exposition. Too often, however, dialogue is under-nourished and ignored.

If you really want to learn how to write great dialogue, take a playwriting workshop. It will be well worth your time and energy.

Mistake #1: Characters use each other’s names all the time.

For example:
“Bob, I’m so sorry I ran over your cat.”
“Jenny, what are you, an idiot?”

Maybe Jenny would use Bob’s name in this situation, to soften the blow of her bad news. But why would Bob interrupt the explosion of his anger by using her name? He wouldn’t.

Writers overuse characters’ names as a form of exposition; it’s a simple way to let us know who’s talking. But in real life when you know someone well you almost never use their name. When you do, it’s usually for emphasis.

A simple rule of thumb (and there are always exceptions): For each page of dialogue don’t use character names more than once.

Mistake # 2: Forcing characters in high context relationships to speak low context dialogue.

What are high context/ low context relationships?

People in a high context relationship know each other very well. For example: married couples, siblings, business partners, or roommates. Married couples do not need to tell each other how old they are, how many children they have, or how long they’ve been married. When/ if they do, the reader experiences this as false. People who know each other have a wonderful short hand to their dialogue; they assume a great deal. This is very interesting for the reader because we get to try to read between the lines. Much is inferred in high context dialogue. That inference engages the reader, we prick up our ears and pay close attention. For an excellent example of this, look at the first scene in David Mamet’s play: Glengarry Glen Ross.

Low context relationships occur between people who don’t know each other well. For example: you and your doctor or lawyer, the prosecutor and the accused, a cop and a suspect, a new neighbor introduced into a decades old poker game. In all of these relationships it is natural to ask direct questions and solicit information.

You can create these situations in order to get a great deal of exposition out quickly. This is why low context relationships are so important and why you’ll find them used to great dramatic effect. Think of police and medical dramas, courtroom dramas, narratives based on the new kid in town.

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