Jan 31, 2011

Dialogue is also frequently used to establish conflict. One of the common mistakes I've seen as I've judged contests and critiqued pages for people over the years is that writers often establish conflict in internal monologue and then repeat it in dialogue; i.e.,
She couldn’t do this. The memories were too strong and the past too close to ignore. “I’m sorry,” she said, turning away abruptly. “I can’t do this. I just can’t forget.”
Another common dialogue problem is the Why Now? Conversation. These are conversations that in real life would have taken place long ago, but are dropped into the manuscript to feed information to the reader. For example, a conversation like this between two long-time friends the scene before the hero (who just happened to be with the hit-and-run driver that fateful night....)
“I know you were in that accident when we were in college, but I’ve never asked-- Did you ever find out who ran into your car?”

“No. We never did. We looked and looked, even hired a detective, but we never found the guy.”
Unless these two characters haven't seen each other, had access to e-mail, text messaging, Facebook or Twitter for the past few years, they know the answer. This is not a realistic conversation for them to have. If you use unrealistic conversations like this, it's a form of lying to your reader--which is never a good thing to do.

How do you avoid making these mistakes? Simply put, employ some common sense. I think that mistakes like these should be a red flag to you as an author -- an indication that you aren’t seeing your characters as real people. You’re seeing them as cardboard pieces there for you to move around to illustrate a point or tell your story.

  • Ask yourself if two real people in the same circumstances are likely to have this same conversation. 
  • Ask yourself how this conversation would go between you and a friend in the same circumstances. Read your dialogue aloud. Reading your dialogue silently on the page is not going to help you find the problem areas. 
  • Have someone else read your dialogue aloud to you. Another person won’t disguise the problem areas the way you might for yourself. You’ll hear the dialogue exactly as it’s written, which allows you to know where inflection or punctuation may need to be changed or added.
  • Spend time eavesdropping on other peoples’ conversations to hear what kinds of things people say to each other. Figure out how much you can assume about those people from the conversation you hear.
Most of all, practice, practice, practice. That's the key to mastering technique, with writing as with any other artistic endeavor. 

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