Writing and Shit – part 23 – How to Write Really Bad Dialogue

Now that you’ve had a go at the three models of dialogue, you may be thinking I have horribly oversimplified the complexity of how people talk to one another.

Good.

Now it’s time to think about how to do better.

Mr But: And you said you were going to mention other possible models of dialogue.

Thank you.

Some of these other models would be Co-operating (based on Mutual Self-interest), Negotiating (based on the need to share resources) and Confession (based on guilt).

The reason I don’t think these alternative models of dialogue aren’t as useful as Winning, Hiding and Ignoring will become clearer after I’ve had a chance to explain what makes a scene – because dialogue isn’t free floating (never do just one thing at a time), and it needs to have a purpose other that just showing off how you think people speak.

You may come up with your own entirely different models of dialogue, in which case please let me know what they are.

To finish off this section, I’d like to take our basic layout for good dialogue and turn it bad.

WINNING        POWER

HIDING         FEAR

IGNORING       EGO

I’m going to suggest that bad dialogue is the negation of this –

NO WINNING        NO POWER

NO HIDING         NO FEAR

NO IGNORING       NO EGO

In the No Winning dialogue, everything would be mutual love and assistance. In the No Hiding, each speaker would want to be known completely – they would be without guilt or shame. And in the No Ignoring, they would have nothing better to do with their life than give 100% attention to another person.

See how this switch immediately takes depth away from everything. All the talk would be honest and on the surface – I like you would mean I like you rather than I’m marrying you for your money.

There are dialogues like this in art, but I think they are at their best when they are love duets in opera. Here, with the music of agreement rising up beneath them, perfect concord, lovers such as Tristan und Isolde or Papageno and Papagena can sing back and forth, the same message, I adore you, I adore you, and it means something. On the page, this can’t go on for very long.

Literary aside: As soon as Jane Austen’s couples get to the point they can speak with complete freedom, because they have reached ‘an understanding’ – they are whisked off to a garden where we know they are together but we never hear a word they speak to one another. Dialogue has been transcended – and, I think Jane Austen felt, what goes on in a happy marriage is profoundly private and a little dull.

Bad dialogue often has no subtext.

BAD DIALOGUE IS OF OBVIOUS USE TO THE WRITER,

AND THE READER CAN SEE US WHAT THAT USE IS

Bad dialogue is broadcast; good dialogue is overheard. We, as readers, just happen to be in the room, invisible.

In good dialogue, every word one character says to another is always and only the word they would say to that character, given the situation they are in. None of the words that character says are for the benefit of the writer or for the information of the reader.

Really good dialogue should seem to be entirely without purpose, as far as the whole story or novel is concerned. It should feel of the moment, spoken, slightly askew. Really good dialogue should never be expositional.

But what is exposition?

One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 23 – How to Write Really Bad Dialogue

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 22 – Ignoring Dialogue | tobylitt

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