META: The Problem with Dialogue

Martin Phipps martinphipps2 at
Tue Aug 5 22:15:24 PDT 2008

I was going to call this "The Problem With Bad Dialogue" but then I
thought that was too negative.  Don't forget that "problem" could mean
"puzzle" as in "math problem".  Anyway, with that disclaimer out of
the way...

Dialogue is, apparently, not an easy thing to write.  It shouldn't
really be that hard, after all, because we are all able to talk but
the problem with dialogue it involves two people.  It's a challenge,
for example, to present an argument between two people and have each
side try to put forward a convincing argument: the author usually
takes a side in the argument and doesn't give the other side a fair

The general problem is trying to make dialogue seem natural.  Natural
dialogue includes hesitations, restarts, even poor grammar and it
doesn't usually feature the level of vocabulary that you might expect
from a prepared speech.  People writing dialogue should avoid frequent
rewrites and simply have the characters find their own voice and speak
in the manner that they are expected to speak.  (This is why when you
go back and read a character in one of his or her early appearances
that he or she may seem "off": it is because the writer hasn't found
the character's voice yet.)  In general, writers should let their
characters make mistakes when they talk and avoid refering to a
thesaurus (unless you're thinking of a word that your character would
say but you, yourself, normally wouldn't which means that you're going
to end up having to look it up).

The question has been brought up before.  What is meant by a
character's voice?  Does that mean accent?  Does that mean
catchphrases?  No, not at all.  In fact, having a character speak in a
thick accent can be a bit annoying.  Having a French speaking
character say "Ze movie I saw last night was excellent!" is okay but
"Ze movie I zaw las nigh waz excellen!" is way over the top and is, in
fact, a bit difficult to read.  What would be the point of writing
"was" as "waz"?  Isn't "was" pronounced /waz/ anyway?  And if a French
speaking person spoke English that badly then the person he was
talking to wouldn't be able to understand him.

In any case, if someone doesn't speak English very well then you can
show that without using a funny accent.  Here's a (made up) example of
what I mean.

"Hi.  I'm Maria.  I'm from Venezuela.  Venezuela: it's a nice
country.  You should visit.  It's very hot, but not too hot.  You
would like it there, I think."

See what I mean?  You wouldn't want to go and "fix" the way Maria
talks because the way she talks gives her her own voice.  The point is
that there are more subtle ways of establishing character through
dialogue than funny accents or catchphrases.

Another thing to consider is dialogue that is appropriate to the
situation.  Consider the following (made up) example:

  Captain Amazing grimaced with pain.  He didn't expect Lord Ebon's
death ray to have any effect on him.
  "Captain Amazing!  Are you alright?" Sidekick Boy asked.
  "I'm fine," Captain Amazing said.  "Let's get him."

Of course, the writer is trying to show how cool Captain Amazing is
but what if "I'm fine" were changed to "I'm... fine".  What a
difference that makes!  That means that Captain Amazing isn't really
okay and he's just telling Sidekick Boy that he's fine.  What a

Finally, authors should avoid making characters provide awkward
exposition.  I personally don't like forced exposition (including
flashbacks).  This makes some scenes difficult to write, however.
Consider the problem of having a story set in an airplane.

  Joe Blow was flying to Bermuda.  It was his first time on a plane
and he was nervous.

Actually, that's not so bad.  Can we provide the same information
using dialogue?

  "Hi.  I'm Joe Blow.  What's your name?"
  "Maria.  Maria Lopez."
  "Hi, Maria.  Is this your first time flying to Bermuda?"
  "This is the first time I've ever been on an airplane.  So I'm a bit
  "I see."

Hmm.  That's not bad either.   Obviously Joe is hitting on Maria so
the dialogue doesn't seem too forced.  I actually like it better than
the narrative exposition.  Of course, if Joe and Maria had already
knew each other then there would be no reason for Joe to tell Maria
that he'd never been on a plane before because she'd already know
that.  That's when exposition becomes problematic.

There are some scenes where exposition comes perfectly natural,
however, such as when detectives arrive at a scene and the arresting
officer explains what happened.  This kind of exposition occurs all
the time in crime dramas.  In general, exposition is natural whenever
the person being spoken to is being told something new or when the
speaker is so surprised by what he sees that he has to say something,
such as a character saying "Look, Dude, it's a flying saucer... and
it's landing in our back yard!"

Basically, dialogue should always sound as if it is actually coming
right out of the mouth of the person who is supposed to be saying it.
If it doesn't then that's a problem.

Previous "The Problem with/of" posts:
* Fourth Wall Breaking
* Subjectivity (in reviews)
* Secret Identies
* Good versus evil
* Humour


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