Critique Technique, Part 28 — Awkward Dialogue

Woman talking on pay phone
Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong /

Ah, dialogue. It’s hard for many writers to do well. When it works, it crackles, sings, inspires, enrages, chills, thrills. But when it doesn’t, it might do that too, but for the wrong reasons! It may be stiff and stilted, choppy or verbose, confused or confusing, or have other problems. Any or all of those characteristics can be acceptable, even necessary, when they reflect the character of the speaker. When they don’t, there’s trouble.

Natural Dialogue vs. Written Dialogue

There are many reasons for this. First off, dialogue in writing—all writing: fiction, memoir, and non-fiction—is not natural, but has to sound natural when read, especially out loud. Real dialogue includes pauses, repetitions, false starts, bad grammar, slang and jargon, incomplete sentences, and other problems.

Fictional dialogue is “better” than natural speech without seeming to be constructed, even though it is. If any of the problems I listed above appear there, the author should have put them there intentionally.

Perhaps even more than in narrative, every word must be the right word. Sentence structure must be just right to convey the proper degree of tension—from raving rage to the gentlest soothing. Every speaker must say just the right thing, especially when that’s just the wrong thing.

The good news for you as a reviewer is that bad dialogue calls attention to itself. You feel the problem as you read it. You find yourself saying, “Huh?” or “Get on with it, will you?” or even throwing the story across the room in frustration.

But let’s get a bit more specific about a few ways dialogue can be awkward. We’ll start with dialogue that is stiff or stilted.

Stiff and Stilted

First off, what do I mean by “stiff” and “stilted”? They’re very similar, so I need to be clear about how they’re different. Stiff dialogue has these characteristics.

  • It is often too grammatically correct. Sentences are complete, with an explicit subject, verb, and object. Real, and real-sounding, dialogue on the other hand is full of sentence fragments.
  • Sentences may be long and rambling (there’s an example below) or short and choppy, like this: “Bob went to the store. He bought a loaf of bread and a half-gallon of milk. He paid for them in cash.” Both kinds of sentences can be effective when they’re used properly. The problem occurs when the style does not match the character or the situation.
  • The speakers avoid using contractions, saying “I will” rather than “I’ll,” for example.
  • It’s emotionally flat, even when trying to express strong emotion, by avoiding the strong language that high emotion requires, or by using sentence structures that don’t match with or create the high emotion the author intended.
  • The pace never changes and often plods. The pace and flow of real, and real-sounding, dialogue ebbs and flows.

In short, stiff dialogue sounds the way a robot in a bad science fiction movie from the 1950s would speak.

Stilted dialogue is stiff, and then some. It adds extra degrees of formality, “expert” or erudite language (like that), and emotional distance between the speakers. Sentences in stilted dialogue or narrative tend to be longer and more complex than they need to be and to use many words where a few would do. The result can be something like this: “As you can see, madam, by virtue—or lack thereof—of your behavior, it shall be necessary for me to make inquiries into the nature and number of your previous liaisons with potential suitors in order that I may be better informed as to their, and your, morality and any potential indications of turpitude or depravity.”

As opposed to, “So, Alice, who’ve you been screwing lately?”

There are other ways writing can be awkward.

  • Unclear personal pronoun references can be a real problem. When there are two or more characters of the same gender in a sentence or paragraph, referring to them with pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers) can leave the reader confused over which pronoun refers to which character.
  • Similarly, using the characters’ names over and over can be just as awkward. There’s no confusion over who the author or speaker is referring to but repeating names does not reflect natural speech patterns.
  • “Talking around” a topic, that is, using euphemisms or indirect language rather than coming out and naming the person or thing can lead to real confusion for the reader, whether it’s the narrator or a character speaking.
  • Abnormal word order is a technique writers will use when they’re trying to make a character seem “foreign”—Yoda from the Star Wars movies, for example—or uneducated. Used sparingly and in character, this technique can be fine. If the author uses it too much, though, the reader will struggle.

While I’ve concentrated on dialogue here, awkward narrative shares all of these faults. The only difference is that it’s the narrator “speaking” directly or indirectly to the reader, rather than the reader listening in on a character’s thoughts or to a conversation between characters.

A Powerful Technique

What can you do to help repair awkward dialogue or narrative? One of the best things you can do is encourage the author to read her work out loud before she submits it. Or, she can use the read-aloud capabilities that some word processors and document handling programs like Adobe Reader have. If she resists, read the unedited work out loud to her so she can hear just how awkward it is. In many cases, the awkwardness will speak for itself and you won’t have to exaggerate the problems. If she still doesn’t understand that there’s a problem, you may need to ask her to explain why she chose to write the dialogue the way she did. Maybe you’re the one who doesn’t understand.

 Reading a work out loud is such a powerful technique because we process the words we hear differently than when we read them with our eyes. Problems our eyes and brain glide right over will jump out to the listener when the work is read aloud. This technique works for narrative as well as dialogue.

Questions for You

Now here are some questions you can ask yourself as you review a work.

  • Is every sentence of the author’s dialogue grammatically correct?
  • Is every sentence complete, or does he use fragments?
  • Are her sentences consistently the same length, or do they vary?
  • Do her characters fail to use contractions?
  • Do his characters expresses emotion through their dialogue effectively?
  • Is his characters’ dialogue consistent or inconsistent with the kind of person they’re supposed to be?

If you spot any of these problems, suggest ways the author could fix them.

Awkward dialogue or narrative will undermine a reader’s confidence in a writer perhaps faster than just about anything else. It’s immediately obvious. It’s also generally easy to fix, and as a reviewer, you’ll do your writer-friend a huge favor by helping them do so.

What kinds of things stand out to you as awkward dialogue? Be sure to be clear about it when you put your thoughts in the Comments box below.

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