When dialogue is great, it can be terrific, keeping readers or audiences on the edge of their seats.
Whether it’s the verbal sparring of Bogart and Bacall, the wisecracking characters of 1930s films, or dramatic courtroom exchanges in A Few Good Men, dialogue can spark and enthrall.
It’s not just true of films or plays either – there are plenty of novels with powerful dialogue.
But there are also times when dialogue ruins scenes Because here’s the problem – dialogue can be a little too seductive. Or to be more exact, writers who are rather too fond of their characters can sometimes find it difficult to know how much is too much.
The problems with dialogue are numerous and linked to different issues.
For example, writers who find their characters springing spontaneously to life, like Athena from her father’s head, might feel they spend a good part of their time just reporting what their characters are saying.
It’s like taking dictation. Sometimes it’s like being possessed as you struggle to keep up with what your characters are saying and doing.
Your fingers fly over the keyboard and you’re hoping they’ll slow down.
When characters won’t stop talking
Characters like this can have a real spark because they haven’t been consciously constructed or built from the ground up. They’ve not been sketched out on paper but appear to emerge from the writer’s subconscious.
They can be unpredictable, obstructive, overly chatty (or the opposite).
Such characters can pull the plot way off track. They have their own opinions that can supersede the author’s.
If they are chatty, their dialogue can go on longer than necessary. And if they’re the amusing type, the author may find them entertaining.
However, this can have a detrimental effect on the pacing and plot.
Amusing dialogue scenes can only go on so long. Dialogue scenes should usually serve a purpose.
If the author has two characters like this in the same scene, the situation can become unmanageable. Cutting back these scenes is pretty much an example of murdering your darlings. The scenes might seem to be full of life, but a novel is not episodic. There should be a plot, and it should keep on moving.
It shouldn’t be paused frequently for a chat break.
When dialogue destroys your atmosphere
Where this can become an even bigger issue is when there’s a conflict between the tone of the dialogue and the genre of the novel or its overall atmosphere.
For example, if you want a dark, foreboding atmosphere to hang over the narrative, too much witty repartee is going to blow it out of the water. Think horror novels or dark thrillers. The dialogue becomes tone-deaf.
It would work in a witty chic-lit novel, but there are other narratives where you really need to reign it in.
You particularly don’t want it at the wrong moments in the plot, where it interrupts the story or delays important events.
Too much of this and your reader may bail out completely.
When dialogue makes scenes too ‘loud’
Another issue I’ve seen in manuscripts is that dialogue can actually amplify the volume in scenes where you want a quieter and possibly more introspective atmosphere.
Sometimes, instead of dialogue, indirect speech is really better.
There are other reasons why you might choose to use indirect speech, but volume is one.
Another is that too much speech which has a low-information-to-wordcount ratio buries important details. You don’t want the most important details of the speech to be hidden among the less important chat.
While people can drone on in real life, you have to be a bit more ruthless with characters.
Novels, like films and plays, are artificial constructs. They are not a realistic representation of life. The scenes are edited, with toilet breaks and other mundanities usually left out.
The same should be true of speech.
You don’t have to be puritanical about it and only include the absolutely most relevant dialogue.
But you do have to weigh the length and tone of your dialogue against the surrounding narrative.
When dialogue slows the pace
Dialogue often produces shorter lines and paragraphs down a page. This leads to the reader turning the page faster. While that is good for pace, it can also be draining to read if it goes on too long.
This is particularly true if the dialogue doesn’t have an important purpose.
The reader isn’t reading to eavesdrop on people, they want to see what happens to the characters and follow the plot to the end.
When dialogue works really well it can boost the pace, but when it doesn’t it can slow the pace to a crawl.
A novel heavy on dialogue is going to have a different tone from one that has much less.
This doesn’t mean that the first is wrong – it could be a feature of the novel.
But it does have an impact on tone and volume, though there are other factors like the personalities of the character and the genre that also have to be factored in.
Other examples of when dialogue ruins scenes
Fictional dialogue is a huge topic. Certainly, it’s too complex to cover in one blog post. But these are some of the other occasions when dialogue can ruin your scenes:
- Using clunky dialogue to convey information to the reader. There are more subtle ways to convey the information you want your reader to know.
- Related to the previous point – some writers are using blocks of dialogue as massive info dumps, with no interruptions or pauses that you might expect in real-life speech.
- Long speeches that are never interrupted by other characters.
- Incorrect dialogue formatting – one author client even had an editor incorrectly format all the dialogue in her novel which I then had to undo.
- Dialogue where everyone in the same scene sounds exactly the same. Readers struggle to tell one character from another.
- Overly formal dialogue that doesn’t match real-life speech patterns. For example, some writers make upper-class speech oddly stilted.
Dialogue is a skill you can master
There’s much more that could be listed here. But one important thing to remember is that most human communication is non-verbal. And this is often getting missed. Those little pauses, gestures, facial expressions, and body language can reveal a lot. Check out The Emotion Thesaurus for how to convey non-verbal cues.
If you really want to learn from the best, screenwriters and dramatists are a great place to start. Some of them are more realistic than others, but there’s plenty of great material to learn from.
Most of all, don’t worry if your dialogue isn’t quite there yet. It’s something you can refine over multiple drafts.
And if you think it’s not your strong point right now, remember not to get bogged down in negative thinking. Because when you tell yourself you’re not good at something, it can block you from doing better.
Those other people who are great at dialogue – who knows how long it took them to get there!
Want to try a free sample edit?
I’m offering a free sample edit of 2,500 words at the moment. It’s only available for fiction or memoir. It has to be a longer work like a novella or novel. The sample edit does not cover short stories or non-fiction articles and writing. You can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org