Putting Words in People’s Mouths; Or, Thoughts about Dialogue

I’ve been thinking about dialogue lately, since I dinged The Hangman’s Secret for putting anachronistic and American-flavored English into its British characters’ mouths. Dialogue is such a critical part of a work of fiction that it really can ruin a story if the author gets it wrong. But if the author gets it right, well, great dialogue can make a book a joy to read. In text, a wrong word or two isn’t such a big deal; it tends to get drowned out by the rest of the text unless it’s a real howler. In dialogue, however, every word has to be the perfect word. It’s almost like poetry. Dialogue has to convey meaning, express character, keep things moving in the book, and support the overall plausibility of the book. See how much can go wrong?

Marguerite Gérard

Here are some of the danger zones I’ve thought of, reflecting on the books I’ve read:

  • Dialect. Obviously, this one is first on the list for me. I know that authors agonize over dialect. Should they recreate dialect phonetically? What if it sounds racist, as can happen when authors don’t use African-American Vernacular English with sensitivity? This is part of the reason why a lot of authors these days hire sensitivity readers. 
  • Too much explication. When a knowledgeable character launches into a history of something another character (and the reader) needs to understand, I tense up. Am I going to get a lecture? Am I going to get an undigestible helping of jargon? Is this long speech going to go on so long I forget what’s going on with the plot? 
  • Class. Related to dialect, if an author doesn’t nail how people of various classes speak, then characters can end up sounding either completely bland or as caricatures. How often have we run across criminals who sound like Prison Mike?
  • Too much banter. It pains me a bit to write this because I love banter. Most of my own dialogue in real life is an attempt at banter, to my boss’s occasional annoyance. But if the characters fall to bantering for too long, it can derail a plot almost as badly as having a character launch into a lecture. Also, too much and too funny banter starts to sound stage-y. Only people in Oscar Wilde’s plays are that witty all the time.
  • Too much meandering.  Meandering dialogue has subtext, sometimes so much that it sinks the dialogue under its own weight. I think of this type of dialogue when I see long conversations, usually in literary novels, when two characters just blether on about the weather or something seemingly innocuous. If you’re clued in to the subtext, all is well. If not, it’s like hanging out with a relative you don’t know very well at a family reunion and there’s no escape in sight. 
  • Unnatural dialogue. All of us readers have come across dialogue that makes us think, “No one actually talks like that!” It might be because of something I’ve already mentioned. It might also be because the dialogue is too concise, too erudite, too full of curse words, too something. I’m sure authors agonize over this, because they have to make characters sound natural for their age, gender, class, background, and so many other things that I’m surprised any of them managed to write a word at all, considering how easy it would be to fall into research rabbit holes. 

What about you out there, bookish internet people? Are there other things that annoy you in dialogue? Things that can go wrong that I didn’t mention here? 

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