Many writers get their first dose of rejection with the comment, “stilted dialogue.” But what does that mean? And how do you fix it?
Writing Tip for Today: A few of stilted dialogue’s pitfalls and solutions:
Stilted Dialogue Pitfalls
- Dialogue becomes hard to understand due to long spoken sentences, abstract or technical words or the speaker waxing poetic. In real life, people don’t get to speechify most of the time.
- Characters begin to sound unnatural, and therefore unsympathetic. Or character feels disembodied due to length between scenic reminders.
- Reader can’t invest in character/story due to lack of authenticity, emotion or both. A character who is explaining, teaching or otherwise pontificating is usually a boring character.
Stilted Dialogue Fixes
- Use contractions! Unless you wish the reader to speak the King’s English (and isn’t it funny that all Ancient Romans and characters in fantasy novels ALWAYS have English accents?), use contractions. It’s the way most of us talk.
- Use ACTION, THOUGHTS and EMOTIONS to convey more than just the spoken words. If you force the dialogue to carry too much of the weight of a scene, the reader will miss out on the surroundings, character motivation (so important!) and sequel (reactions/dilemmas/decisions). Help your reader by providing the most complete scenic picture you can.
- Don’t Teach the Reader. You may know all sorts of fascinating bits from your research, but resist the urge to tell your reader every single one of them. By stepping away from the scene to “educate or enlighten” your reader on history, customs or geography, you will likely either slip into exposition (slow!) or Back Story (cold mashed potatoes!). Work on letting your characters ACT OUT the facts or experience the surroundings.
- Listen to Real Conversations. In real life, people don’t tell one another things they both already know. Keep this in mind for your dialogue too. If Fred says, “Bob, when are you leaving for work at the Badgood Rubber Tree Plant?” and they both work there, it’s far more plausible that Fred would say, “When are you leaving for work?” Oh, and people in conversation rarely call one another by name (unless it’s your mom and then when you hear your full given name you know you’re in deep trouble!). Do some discreet eavesdropping and incorporate into your dialogue.