I’ve been reading a lot of submissions recently with bad dialogue and, unfortunately, that mistake is enough to make me reject a manuscript.
There seem to be three main ways in which writers err with dialogue. First, they use it to dump back story. This is very tempting and also a very big no-no. Back story is basically anything that’s happened before the action of the story occurred. Writers spend so much time getting to know our characters and stories in their imagination that we usually have TONS of back story, and it’s very tempting to share it all with the reader. It’s kind of like a parent who wants to tell everyone exactly how many words their two-year-old can say and where they were when they first said it and what the baby’s reaction was and what the parent’s reaction was, yada yada yada. Those details are very important to the parent, but the average listener really doesn’t care. The difference between the parent and the writer is that the parent can get away with it. Writers, if they want to be published, have to learn to curb that back story to the bare minimum. Then they have to figure out how to integrate it into the real story. Here’s where the dialogue issue comes in. A tempting shortcut is to simply have the characters “say” the backstory. For example,
“I like those shorts, Susie.”
“Thanks, Jack. You bought them for me at the mall, remember? Last Christmas right before Grandma died. Then we all had to go to the funeral.”
“Yes, and then you moved to New York and started college. I haven’t seen you since. I sure have missed you.”
Basically, the characters are telling each other things that they already know and have no plausible reason to be saying other than to be informing the reader (who they, of course, don’t know exists). This shortcut, while effective at getting the back story out, alienates the reader because the dialogue becomes stiff.
Stiff dialogue is a HUGE problem. You can create great, vivid, sympathetic characters, but if they sound like robots in their conversations, the reader is going to disengage. And when a reader disengages, they don’t end up liking the story. Above all, you want the reader to like your story. So stiff dialogue is a problem!
The final way that dialogue trips up writers is when they use it inappropriately. It is really tempting to just give your characters rein to have long conversations that are filled with quips and retorts and all the useless things people actually talk about in real life. As a writer, I know it’s a lot of fun to write those scenes because it’s like you’re actually there in the room with the character. But as a reader, it doesn’t work. Those scenes inevitably drag out. Dialogue has to be used to push the story forward, not to imitate real life. To go full circle, that’s also why back-story-dialogue usually flops: it doesn’t add anything to the scene. Dialogue, like any interactions with characters, needs to move the scene towards its main point, and the scene needs to move the story towards its main point.
But all hope is not lost. If you’re erring with dialogue, that just means you need to learn how to fix it! And while there are of course classes and articles and even books on the subject, I think watching TV is really helpful. You have to be careful, since television and movies often use dialogue precisely for back story dumping, and some shows have horribly stiff dialogue (for an example of both of these, check out this article), but in general script writers have good dialogue skills.
And for a completely unrelated link: do you want to know which famous writer you sound like? This website is a great tool for procrastination!