This is the type of dialogue that includes every “um,” “ah,” “like,” etc. that you hear from people in real life. Don’t include those crutch words unless you want to portray that someone is particularly nervous or lost for words. We say “um” and “uh” all the time, even when we know what we want to say, even when we’re not nervous, just because they’ll buy us a moment of extra time if we briefly get distracted or shift our train of thought. Also, talking like that is just habit. But we barely notice these crutch words in real-life conversations, so they are not important and therefore not necessary in most dialogue. Also, don’t include any other everyday phrase or sentence if it’s not important to the story. In other words, skip the small talk if you don’t want your audience to get bored. How do you determine if a bit of dialogue is important? Ask yourself the following: Does it show or matter my characters’ relationship? Does it help to build or deteriorate their relationship in any way? If the answer is no, then chances are, the dialogue isn’t necessary. Let’s take the example of small talk. If you write perfectly friendly small talk between two characters, that won’t be interesting. If your two characters are close (or will be by the end of the story), they have much better things to talk about than the weather. If your two characters aren’t close and never will be, then what is the point of even having them interact in such an ordinary way? The exception: if the small talk occurs between characters who are not on the best terms with each other, the small talk can make the awkwardness between them palpable for the reader. But when in doubt, veer away from small talk.
Signs of narration dialogue: a long paragraph of dialogue, too-poetic speech, and info-dumping. Long paragraphs, poetic style, and info-dumps are all things that are typically found in narration, and they do not sound natural coming out of someone’s mouth.
Let’s address the first one. Not every long paragraph of dialogue is problematic. Angry rants and anecdotes often come in this form. However, people don’t usually speak in uninterrupted paragraphs unless they’re doing a TED Talk. If a character goes on talking for too long without exchanging any words with another character, then it becomes a monologue. Make sure there’s a give-and-take between the characters.
The second one: too-poetic speech. Words usually don’t sound elegant coming out of someone’s mouth unless they’re reading a prepared speech. That’s not to say that you can’t have a smooth, eloquent speaker as a character, but there are certain things that no one does in speech. For example, no one would say out loud, “I looked over my shoulder as I ran, checking to see if he was still pursuing me.” People don’t recount events that way. That is, they don’t use a full sentence (“I looked over my shoulder as I ran”) and immediately follow it up with a phrase that begins with an -ing verb (“checking to see if he was still pursuing me”). The first part of the sentence is sort of okay as a piece of dialogue — it’s the “checking” part that really ruins it and makes it sound like something that would be narrated.
The last one: info-dumping. Info-dumps are actually a guilty pleasure of mine as a reader. Don’t know why. But I’m definitely in the minority. It can be tempting to fall back on a character’s speech as a way of informing your reader about the world they’re in. However, just because a character is saying it, doesn’t make it any more interesting than it would be as part of the narration — the only difference is the quotation marks. A better way to impart information is to have one character asking a question, another answering, and then the first character asking follow-up questions. Also, having characters perform actions as they converse — fidgeting, cleaning, rummaging around looking for something, etc. — to break up the dialogue is a good idea. This will feel more natural, and it’s a good way to impart information about the character, since actions often speak louder than words. That’s the key to keeping dialogue from reading like narration — being natural. Ask yourself, “Would anyone actually say this? Would they say it in this way?” and more specifically, “Would my character actually say this, and how would they say it?”
Have you ever read a character explaining something in a way that was so logical, so coherent, not missing a single piece of information, that it sounded like a paragraph you could scoop out of an academic paper? This is, of course, essay dialogue, and it sounds robotic. When a reader comes across something like this, they remember that they are reading writing rather than being sucked into another world. Famous novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard wisely said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” You can save this for the editing stage — it’s always best to get your point down on the page before you make it sound great — but don’t just leave the essay dialogue in your finished work. Also, I have a fondness for big words just as much as the next reader/writer, but remember, most people don’t speak using really big words if they can avoid it, so reflect that in your dialogue.
Well, that’s all for now. Are there any types of dialogue you read that you can’t stand?