Let’s talk about bad dialog.
Regardless of what point of view you’re writing in– 1st person, 3rd person omniscient, 3rd person limited omniscient, 3rd person limited omniscient close POV, and (YOU SHOULD NOT) even 2nd person, dialog is one of the best ways to differentiate your characters. A character’s spoken voice should set them apart automatically from other characters, to the point that tags are uneeded. Dialog is one of the writer’s best tools for conveying character and emotion, driving plot and conflict, and in general, moving a story forward.
And yet, for all its importance, dialog is one of the tools least addressed in writing classes. “Plot?” “Oh, yes, 50% of the class is devoted to designing, tracking, and improving plot.” “Characterization?” “Well, since this is an MFA class, fully 78% of the class is devoted to characterization.”
You might as well ask about basic arithmetic.
Here are some things I’ve done to boost my dialog game:
1) Study bad scripts
Occasionally, you’ll come across a movie or play so widely panned for its bad characterization or poor script– listen to me, friends, those scripts are like GOLD for writers trying to better themselves. You find those scrpts. You print them out. You get your old-school red pencil out. And you dedicate a Saturday afternoon to picking apart those terrible cliches, that awful monolog, those mischaracterizations. You find every time a middle-age housewife from Duluth uses the word ‘malaproprism’ even though she has an eighth-grade education and you gleefully circle it with your blood red pencil.
I don’t usually learn much from GOOD stories, or WELL CRAFTED tales. Because…well, because I’m too involved with the story to notice what’s wrong. A bad story, though? Bad stories make me itch. I scratch that itch by identifying — by detailing — what it is that makes it so bad. It’s important for me to make a physical commitment to identifying the flaws– thus the red pencil. Thus the print out. By physically marking the tale, I am highlighting to my subconscious, “DO NOT DO THIS TERRIBLE THING!”
Suggestions– any of the Star Wars prequels. I’m sure that there are better examples, but those are the most recent ones that strike me.
2) Read your dialog aloud
If it sounds stupid when YOU say it, guess what?
(I read pretty much everything I write aloud, dialog or not. That’s my first step of editing.)
3) Dialect? Accents?
Only convey dialect through dialog if you are an excellent writer.
Here’s the thing with writing accents– no one who has an accent thinks they have one. Southerners do not, to their own ears, drop the ending g in gerunds; lower class British blokes do not transform ‘thinking’ to ‘finking’; and Red Sox fans don’t ‘pahk the cah in Havahd Yahd.’
Given this, a first person story about a southern belle should never have dialog along these lines.
I said, “Sugah, I’ma goin’ ta get some watah.”
…because the character would NEVER hear their own accent, and they certainly wouldn’t represent it that way on the page.
If you want to convey geographic peculiarity, do it through word and phrase choice, not short-cutting dialog. Yeah– if you’re going to represent a region, you have to do enough research into it to know whether they turn the light on, mash the lights, or hit the switch.
4) Be careful how much TV you watch.
When we consume TV, typically, it’s not in a diligent, studious way. Things happen too quickly to process, and what seems like good dialog is really mush. When you study bad dialog, you can learn from it; watching it without thinking about it critically is like mainlining twinkies and expecting actual nourishment.
What’s worse is that now that you’ve watched it, you carry that dialog and tone in your head; it lives there unexamined, unchallenged. When you write that unexamined prose comes up– maybe not in actual plagiarism, but in sloppy tendencies and poor word choice. You play your dialog and scenes like they’re TV, rather than a book; suddenly, dialog (and bad dialog) becomes the primary means of communication, the way it is on TV. The narrative slips; the unique, powerful capabilities of prose are squandered.
Don’t squander yourself. Mmmmkay?