Dialogue #2 — Why Is My Dialogue Awkward?

This week in the “holy shit I’m going to pull my hair out” section of writing frustrations: dealing with dialogue that is on the same level of awkward as watching a straight person introduce their friend’s girlfriend via “and this is Lily’s… roommate.”

As I said in my last dialogue installment (which was uhhh four months ago hahahahaha let’s not talk about that), I really love writing dialogue, so it’s infuriating to me when I try to write it and it’s just not working. Everything feels stilted, jolting along like a malfunctioning steam engine. To counter that, I’ve come up with some questions that help me, and will hopefully help you too.

 

  • What are they talking about? Dumb question, I know. But you’d be surprised how often you can write dialogue and later, realize it doesn’t really… mean anything? Or at least doesn’t add anything. To evaluate this problem, it can be good to assess the two levels of “what are we talking about?” First, there’s the surface level: two people are arguing over where to go to dinner, a group of people doing a project together need to decide how to go about it, etc. If it’s a necessary conversation, something you need to transition or to give the reader information about what’s going on, that’s fine, you don’t have to go any deeper than that. But there’s also the second level: two people are arguing over where to get dinner, and it gets way more heated than it needs to be, and the reader knows: this isn’t about dinner, it’s about the fact that they’re behind on their bills and she just lost her job and they can’t afford to go to dinner but they’re trying to pretend like everything’s fine. A group of people need to decide what to do their group project on, but the reason they can’t come to a final decision is because the one member who held them all together dropped the project, so they go around in circles, unable to confront the fact that they can’t get it done without that one member. In other words, it’s the difference between what’s being said and what’s being implied. When you find yourself asking the question “what are they talking about?” maybe follow the question up with “is there something bigger going on here?”
  • Does this conversation reveal something about the characters? Sometimes, you’re writing a scene that is very much about having to convey some basic information to the reader about, say, how this heist is going to go down. But that doesn’t mean it can double as something else. A lot of really good dialogue is revealing in a way that doesn’t matter in the moment, but is good to know for later. If Laurel, Tony, Michelle, and Andrea are planning a heist, and Michelle leaves in the middle to go pick up McDonald’s, we know that she perhaps doesn’t care much about it, or doesn’t take much of anything seriously, or just really likes McDonald’s. If Tony yells at her for it, we know he is taking this the most seriously, has the most explosive temper out of all the them, etc. Then let’s say Laurel defends Michelle, says they’ve all been working at this for awhile, maybe they should take a break, we know she’s the peacemaker. Maybe all Andrea this whole time is sit silently in the corner, but that alone is also very telling: she doesn’t get into petty arguments, she can’t be bothered, you get the idea. Maybe this isn’t important right in the moment, after all, the main thing you want from the scene is to explain to the reader how the heist is going to go down, but these elements are important for later; we need to know how they function as a team, and dialogue is a great way to convey that.
  • Are they talking to the right person? Maybe you’re writing a scene, and you know it’s essential, you know it’s revealing–that’s not the problem. It’s got some of that good juicy character backstory, or it’s that moment when the character finally snaps, but still, it’s not quite working. It doesn’t punch the way you want it to. Ask yourself: who is the character talking to, and why? Let’s say Gwen has been struggling with, hmmm, some deep moral questions in relation to their Catholicism (can you tell I’ve been watching the new season of Daredevil?). You as the writer think, oh, they should definitely be talking to their best friend about this, he can help. Or, they should go talk to their priest, right? Do some good old-fashioned confession. But maybe Gwen is feeling too closed off to go to their friend, is questioning their faith too much to go to their priest (I should really just tag this as Daredevil spoilers at this point). So they find themself in a old records store at 10pm, buy a Grateful Dead track, and they ask the clerk if she believes that God forgives everything. Maybe the clerk answers with something profound, maybe she tells Gwen to go the fuck home and sleep off their existentialism. The point is, Gwen couldn’t ask that question to the people who might come to your mind at first thought. Perhaps they couldn’t say it to anybody at all, and end up going home to their unreasonably cool looking loft for a broke-ass lawyer without a law firm in NYC and drink half a bottle of scotch and ask the stale air if God forgives. Wow, that got dark. ANYWAYS,

 

These are just a couple questions that might be important when writing dialogue that’s not working, maybe they’ll work for you, or maybe you’ll need to develop your own questions. Either way, I hope these were helpful for you. Join me in either two weeks or four months, who the fuck knows anymore, for my third installment in the dialogue series.

Dialogue Part 1: Well That Escalated Quickly

Soap Opera Syndrome. It’s a totally real term that I did not make up just now. It refers to drama for the sake of drama, but, more than that, it’s dialogue escalation due to a lack of something better to do. You know the type of dialogue that goes something like,

“Why’d you do that?”

“Chill out. It’s not that big of a deal.”

“WELL IT IS TO ME.”

You stumble backwards, tripping on the previous paragraph to see if you were skimming and somehow missed the build-up to this explosion. Most of the time, of course, it’s not quite that dramatic of a tone switch, but there is still such a thing as escalating a dialogue too quickly.

In my highly dubious opinion, it’s not actually rapid escalation that’s the problem, but a lack of good reason for it. So let’s look at a couple of bad reasons to take it up a notch.

    1. The plot was getting boring. I’ve done this before. You’re writing, it begins to feel stale, alarms start going off and your first instinct is, NEED CONFLICT. Quick, throw in an argument! Create some dramaaaa. The problem is, the staleness was probably not due to the fact that your characters weren’t fighting, it’s that you’ve lost sight of the true conflict and need to work your way back to that.
    2. I wanted to shock the audience. A well-done unexpected outburst is very satisfying. But you have to explain it after. You have to make sure the audience realizes that it was not, in fact, unexpected, but rather they were looking at it from the perspective that wouldn’t have seen it coming, i.e., from a third person narrator who doesn’t have access to that character’s feelings, or a first person narrator who is not the person who had the outburst. Additionally, there has to be damage control afterwards. That can be in the form of quickly sweeping the drama under the rug if your character(s) are the avoidant type, or having them talk about “hey, what the fuck was that?” There’s nothing more jarring than a character suddenly exploding, and then watching literally everyone move on like nothing happened. It’s the same technique as when creators kill off a character for shock: the writer wants the reader to experience a jolt of surprise, but they don’t want to deal with the fallout of that surprise.
    3. My character is a hot-head. Okay. I really dread social situations, but that doesn’t mean I always hate talking to people. People have certain character traits due to their environment, not because they are given them by, say, some all-powerful writer who has breathed life into them and their world. And while quick-tempered people are certainly more likely to be snappy and or have a sudden onslaught of anger, over-use can be annoying, or more oft than not, mess with the tone of the scene. Were things tense to begin with? Are they in a stressful situation? Even a hot-head isn’t going to blow up if they’re lying in bed and watching ASMR videos when someone knocks on their door to ask them if they’ll come help with dinner.


So, solutions? Well, that’s a little trickier. Despite the ease with which I can describe the problem, actually knowing when it’s an issue verses when it’s appropriate is far more difficult. The simplest advice I can give is just to look at every argument (quickly escalated or otherwise) and ask yourself,

  1. why your characters are fighting,
  2. how it moves along the plot, and
  3. if you’ve properly set up the conflict.

So like… the same questions you ask yourself with pretty much any problem you’re having in your narrative.

Thanks for joining me for part one of my dialogue series, join me in two weeks for tips on awkward dialogue!