How Not to Write Dialogue

I didn’t know this morning whether to write about Ebola, illegal aliens, or the vice president saying China is part of North America. I mean, the whole confounded thing is going belly-up…

Ah, skip it. How about a little coaching for those of you out there who would like to write some fiction, one of these days, and hopefully see it published? I was going to say, “Well, if you want to do that, learn how to write good dialogue.” But in a number of books I’ve had to read lately, good dialogue seemed to be the last thing on the writer’s mind.

A good rule of thumb for creating good dialogue is to avoid anything that sounds like it might have come out of the screenplay for The Poseidon Adventure. It is amazing that Gene Hackman’s acting career survived the lines written for his character to speak.

My own rule is always to try to “hear” my dialogue as if it were lines spoken in a movie. If it sounds right, it’ll read right. But what do I know?

In a series of novels about Merlin published by Zondervan, the author butchers his own work by injecting an endless series of Americanisms into his dialogue. He wants you to imagine you’re in Britain circa 470 A.D.–and then he hits you with lines like this (and I’m not kidding!): “Yeah, that guy sure is a crook. It sure looks like it to me. Ya got a problem with that?”

In a Brother Cadfael knockoff featuring a perky nun in ancient Ireland, circa 500 A.D.–she would be that stock cliche character, The Street-Smart Nun, if they had any streets–we have her beating up (!) the wicked abbot and warning him, “if you ever mess with the sisters of Brigid again, I will come back and finish this.” She also describes her own convent’s evening snack-time as “a great way to unwind.”

This literary crime was perpetrated by Pegusus Books.

Do the editors today think readers are so ignorant, so benighted, so intellectually crushed by text-messaging and video games, that they won’t be able to make any sense of plain English dialogue? Fictional characters living fifteen hundred years ago have to talk like middle school kids today?

Maybe the way to get published, these days, is to write truly horrible dialogue. Maybe that’s what editors are looking for.

So don’t “sound out” your dialogue to make sure it’ll read smoothly. Don’t stick to plain English. Don’t make sure your character’s words clearly convey the information you want the reader to receive.

Instead, make sure your historical novel is jam-packed with contemporary American slang, never write “you” for “ya,” and take pains to see that your cliche characters speak in wall-to-wall cliches. If any originality should creep into your manuscript, get rid of it.

One comment on “How Not to Write Dialogue”

  1. Thanks for the tips, Lee. I need all of them I can get. My editor finished editing my manuscript and she doesn’t like it. She gives good reasons for her professional opinion so my book is currently on hold in my subconsciousness.

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