Sunday, November 15, 2009

When Dialogue Goes Bad

Every once in a while it's helpful to read something you hate. So many of the books I read remind me of how far I have to go in my own writing, but sometimes I'll grab one that rubs me wrong in so many ways that I think to myself, "At least I'm not doing that in my stories."

Without mentioning the title, I recently finished a very popular book that, in so many words, sucked. Now usually I would never finish such a book, but this one was so incredibly awful that I just kept reading, mesmerized by its suckiness. I even kept notes, which is something I never do while reading, because I wanted to see just why I hated the book so much. I came up with eleven reasons, some of which were sort of trivial and personal (overuse of italics); others which I consider unpardonable sins. I'd like to talk about one of the unpardonable sins: crummy dialogue.

Since dialogue is basically the soundtrack of a story, it's imperative that the author get it right at least most of the time. I found five major problems with the dialogue in the story.


1. Inconsistent voice---I'd love to use actual examples from the text, but I promised myself that I wouldn't out the book, so I've changed some of the words:

"I was just packing up for the day. Wendell's has been temporarily shut down after the inspection, so until it opens up again, and I hope it does soon, I'll be back washing cars for a living."

Later, same character: "I know you trying to put on your brave face--that face that even your mama might not see through. But I know what you got, and you got it bad."

2. Dialogue tags other than said--I can handle a few of them, but I literally just opened to a page in this book and saw the following, in order:

John groaned. Sally taunted. John asked. Sally explained. Sally toasted, John groaned (again), John protested
I could probably look past most of the above, but there were also places where the writer wrote something like:

"I know" was all he could muster.

3. Dialogue used solely as a means to dump information, often easily identified by being too long. People just don't talk in this many sentences, unless they're giving a speech, which is basically what this sort of dialogue amounts to.

"This place wasn't here when I was a kid," said John. "It was built in 1987. People born during the 70s and 80s are referred to as the "Me Generation" because they put themselves above duty. You've heard the phrases "Be Yourself," and "Believe in Yourself?" Those came out of this me first mindset. You know, we live in a time when high self-esteem is encouraged from childhood, when young people have more freedom and independence than ever, but also far more depression, anxiety, cynicism, and loneliness. People like you have been raised to aim for the stars at a time when it is more difficult than ever to get into college, find a good job, and afford a house. Your expectations are sky high just as the world is becoming more competitive. Disappointment is almost guaranteed. That's what I feel here--disappointment."

4. Dialogue that doesn't fit the character

If a college kid is going to demonstrate through dialogue that she knows all about the Peloponnesian War, then the reader better be presented with a reason why she knows this stuff.

If a twelve-year-old is going to offer pearls of wisdom like Donald Sutherland, then there better be a reason why he knows so much.

5. Dialogue that would never happen because two characters would have no reason to say these things to each other.

"Remember how Mom hated the Yankees?"
"Sure do."
"She ever tell you about the time she threw a banana peel at Moose Skowron?"
"Probably fifty times."
"Yep, she waited outside the players' entrance at old Tiger Stadium and when that ugly sumbitch got within range, she fired that nasty thing right at his flat-top."
"Missed though."
"Yep, missed. She always said, 'How in the hell do you miss something that big?'
"Sure did."*

* I actually kind of like this bit of dialogue, but it's totally unnecessary and not believable. It could be remedied by adding a third character who lacks knowledge of the incident, although if the anecdote is at all central to the story, it still comes off as a cheesy writer's trick.


Tracy Edward Wymer said...

These examples really suck, meaning the person who wrote the original version really got some sections wrong. taunted? protested?

I recently read a MG that did the same. Only this one had 3 adverbs on every page. Words like impishly, sheepishly. Ick!

Paul Michael Murphy said...

It wasn't just a few sections.

MG Higgins said...

Of course, I would so like to know which book you're talking about. I'm guessing it can't be the author's first, or it never would have gotten published. Sure makes me wonder what the editor was doing--on a very long coffee break, perhaps?

Lily Cate said...

Thank you, for posting an honest critique of the actual work, instead of just saying you hated the book because you didn't like the subject matter, or something.

Anita said...

Lately, whenever I read really awful books (especially ones that for whatever reason are selling well), I do the Cabbage Patch, because I'm like, "Hey, I can do better than this guy!"

Monica said...

Anita, what do you mean "do the cabbage patch"?

When i was younger, i would finish every book i started. Now, i realize that i barely have time to read all the good stuff i want to, let alone taking time out for the bad stuff. (btw, read all of your WIP, PMM)

Anita said...

MONICA: HEE-HEE! The cabbage patch dance is a dance involving putting the hands together in the form of fists and moving them in a horizontal, circular motion. The Gucci Crew II had a song describing the dance, as well as Dr. Dre and DJ Yella (of the rap group N.W.A.) in 1987. The dance they made was featured in the song "The Cabbage Patch." It soon became very popular, showing up in many dance clubs in America.

The dance's name is derived from the popular line of dolls "The Cabbage Patch Kids".

Monica said...

ah, yes, Anita, i am familiar with the "Cabbage Patch" dance. I am also familiar with Cabbage Patch dolls. I, in fact, went to Cabbage Patch College... (a pejorative name we gave our small community college.. lol.)

Ray Veen said...

Remember how last week you made me feel bad about my writing because I read your book and it made me jealous?

You've redeemed yourself with this post.

Sam Downing said...

Oh god, I hate number 3! The Lost Symbol was rife with it. (That's the book you're talking about, isn't it?)