Inexperienced writers tend to rely on dialogue to deliver the story. It’s an absolute no-no. Victoria Wood satirised this best in her mock soap ‘Acorn Antiques’:
“Apparently, being spiteful and having lots of extra-marital affairs could bring back my jaundice, so I’m going to be really nice from now on.”
The fancy word for this is ‘exposition’. Dialogue that exists for the supposed benefit of the reader.
‘John’s dead,’ she said.
‘John, our grandfather? The man who brought us up single-handed after our parents died in that terrible plane crash? That John?’
There’s no reason why your dialogue can’t help to set up the character of whoever it is who’s speaking, but when they’re filling in the reader, it doesn’t work.
‘I blame it on my upbringing. If my father hadn’t been abandoned by his mother at the age of six so she could go on a round the world cruise, I can’t help thinking things would have been very different,’ she said.
Show don’t tell and other dialogue dogma
The temptation to do this comes from another age-old writing rule: show don’t tell. Inexperienced writers imagine that by showing someone talking, they’re not telling. They’re wrong.
Ask yourself if anyone would actually deliver the line you just wrote.
Are they saying what they’re saying because you want to fill in detail?
And actually, there are times when you need to have a character recount the plot. Police procedurals are rife with it, but even then, it can come over tired.
When characters first meet they know nothing of each other. Unless you’ve set it up (which you could well do), the first time they talk, there’s no back story. They only know of their immediate situation.
As the scene unfolds, you can tease out a story, but trust your reader to pick up things you leave unsaid. You can add in story around the spoken word. Often you don’t need your characters to know everything about each other or the situation, but the reader may be getting an insider view.
‘I blame it on my upbringing,’ she said.
When he didn’t react, she found herself explaining how her parents split. How her father struggled to bring her up when her mother booked herself on a round the world cruise.
Rules for writing great dialogue
- DON’T have characters tell each other things they should already know, never let them remind each other about things that happened in the past, just so the reader gets it.
- NEVER have characters explain everything in horrible detail.
- DON’T have characters tell each other how it makes them feel – or worse why (especially if it’s because of that awful thing in their past).
I’ve compiled a whole load of tips on writing dialogue into a free e-book, available to anyone who signs up to my mailing list. Or you can buy it online if you’d rather feather my nest with your hard-earned cash.