Clichéd; contrived; awkward; unnatural; forced; stilted.
Ever heard a book described as such?
If the answer is ‘yes’, it’s probably guilty of serving up poor dialogue (among other flaws).
The reasons are numerous. It can be as simple as an inexperienced author’s failure to develop distinct voices for characters; they all seem to speak in the same stilted voice. Such inexperience can be remedied by the author quietly observing different people speak in different situations to note the words, intonations and accompanying body language they employ. For the more skilled, used correctly, YouTube can be a terrific vignette into diverse situations.
But even competent authors suffer from bouts of weak dialogue. Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Ultimatum is a case in point. Take the beginning of chapter two. Conniker engages in a solid page of uninterrupted dialogue. Later on in the chapter another character is afforded a similar privilege. Now, the reader will afford an established author a pass up to a point, but a young budding craftsman has no reserves of trust from which the reader will draw.
For those who are familiar with the book (note book, not film), it’s not hard to figure out what Ludlum is up to. He’s using dialogue as a means to explain elements of the plot. This is hardly uncommon. In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown regularly sets up scenes where Langdon and Teabing engage in lengthy conversations as a ploy to unveil to the unwitting Sophie (and therefore the reader) the finer details of the academic theories that underpin the premise of the plot. If the dialogue fits organically into a scene and is carefully crafted to draw out elements of academia that are germane to the situation, it can work. But I would say the bar must necessarily be set high in terms of interestingness of information for this tactic to work.
This is where Ludlum falls short. The dialogue is tackling mundane backstory. There is little to distract the reader from the contrived setup hence the reader is left with the feeling that something is awkward and out of place.
Ludlum could have remedied this weakness by interspersing the lengthy monologues with narration. Dialogue could have been introduced to express provocative ideas juxtaposed with a strong reaction from other characters.
Let me demonstrate how I would have edited a sample snippet of the page-long dialogue.
…Yet a part of that file was leaked, a very vital part and it concerns me deeply that my name was there…Mine and Dr Morris Panov, the chief psychiatrist of record. We were the only – repeat only two individuals acknowledged to be close associates of the unknown man who…
…Yet a part of that file was leaked, a very vital part.’ Conklin paused as the room reverberated from gasps of incredulity.
It concerned him deeply that his name was there…his and Dr Morris Panov, the chief psychiatrist of record. They were the only two individuals acknowledged to be close associates of the unknown man who…
I submit that my edit strengthens the passage. The dialogue has been reduced to a sentence and no longer seems unnaturally lengthy. In a real life meeting, which participant speaks ad lib for five-minutes uninterrupted? The scene is more vivid by my injection of the other participants’ reaction. It also serves to organically emphasise the importance of this point without telling the reader through contrived dialogue.
An example of good dialogue that springs to mind is Stephen King’s depiction of the famous Terrible Sermon scene Charles Jacob delivers in his book Revival. I don’t have a copy to hand to draw from, but from memory King breaks up the dialogue masterfully with salient reactions. The Terrible Sermon coupled with the final ending are the most powerful passages of the book. I recommend them to all creative writing students.
Like a Cruyff turn , the art to effective dialogue is to know when to use it (and when to refrain). Too little and the book will be dry and boring. Too much and the plot either stagnates, or dialogue is being used as a poor proxy for narrating the plot on.
I’m in the throes of writing a thriller and although I’ve not even completed the first draft, I do peek back every now and then. I can see occasions where I’ll need to edit the dialogue to iron out some of the issues. This is why a skilled editor is gold-dust in our craft as he’ll immediately notice these stylistic flaws.
Seb King on Boxing day in a Starbucks!
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 The masterful Dutch footballer who innovated a handy little trick.