Solving Common Dialogue Problems


Dialogue is an essential component of a story. Through dialogue, we learn about characters’ personalities, we see characters react to events, and we understand the relationships they have with each other. Dialogue allows the reader to visualize scenes. Authors use dialogue to follow the adage “show, don’t tell” what happens. 

When we help authors edit manuscripts, we frequently have to solve three common problems with dialogue:

  1. confusion,
  2. stasis, and
  3. displacement.

We use these terms to categorize the three strategies we use to improve dialogue. To help understand these common dialogue problems, let’s look at an example of poor dialogue, study how it illustrates these problems, and then find solutions. 

John and Tom walked into the restaurant and sat down.
“Do you know what you want?”
“Not really. I’m hungry enough to eat a horse.”
“You’re in luck. Horse meat is on the menu.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope. Look at the back page under ‘Chef’s Specials.’ ”
“Holy cow! You’re right. That’s gross.”
“Not really. It’s pretty good, actually.”
“There’s no way I would eat horse meat.”
“You already have.”
“Huh?”
“Remember those burgers we ate when I had you for a cookout last month?”
“Please don’t tell me that was horse meat.”
“Ok, I won’t. But you sure enjoyed them.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Oh, don’t be such a snob. I thought you liked Chinese food.”
“I do, but what’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, the Chinese eat over a million and a half horses each year.”
“Maybe Mexican food would be better.”
“Same problem. They eat six hundred thousand each year.”
“That’s it. I’m going home for Italian cuisine. No, don’t tell me!” 

Obviously, this is a back and forth exchange between two characters, John and Tom. They each talk in turn. In this sample, the reader will learn about each character’s prejudices and the nature of their relationship. In that regard, the dialogue is fine. However, it suffers from confusion, stasis, and displacement. 

1. Confusion Problems in Dialogue 

Problem: Who is talking? In the sample, which character likes horsemeat and which one is grossed out? You don’t know because the author didn’t tell you. In many dialogues where we see this problem, the author will indicate who is speaking first, or, at a minimum, give the reader a clue. Following that first indication, however, the author leaves the reader to figure out who is speaking, leaving the reader confused. 

In this sample, we could indicate that the first speaker is John.

“Do you know what you want?” asked John.

Then, because this is a back and forth exchange, we could figure out who is saying what. After a number of exchanges, though, the reader may lose track and have to study the dialogue carefully, naming the character for each statement: This is John, this is Tom, this is John, this is Tom, etc. Basically, the reader is doing the work the writer should have done. 

When you confuse your reader this way, you make the reader work too hard to understand the dialogue. You force the reader to pay attention to the writing, which means the reader is not engaged in the story. Fortunately, this problem has a simple solution. 

Solution: Label the speakers. Tell the reader who is speaking. You don’t need to label every line, every few lines is sufficient for the reader to keep track. Also, if you want the reader to focus mainly on one character, only label that character’s speech. Generally, we recommend labeling both, or all, speakers. Following this advice, the sample exchange might include this. 

“Please don’t tell me that was horse meat” said Tom.
“Ok, I won’t. But you sure enjoyed them.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Oh, don’t be such a snob,” said John. “I thought you liked Chinese food.”
“I do, but what’s that got to do with anything?” Tom asked. 

Now the reader knows who is speaking. Problem solved. 

2. Stasis Problems with Dialogue 

Problem: What are the characters doing? “Stasis” means “the state of being motionless.” When people talk, they also act. They move, look, gesture, and inflect. What they don’t do is keep completely still. 

To help the reader visualize the scene, the author lets the characters move. These movements are important. Movement shows how they feel about what they hear or say. This shows the reader important information about characters’ feelings and personalities. Movement also helps to clarify who is speaking, which helps with confusion problems. Most importantly, movement during dialogue makes the scene more realistic and engaging to the reader. Look at this pair of sentences.

“Do you know what you want?”
John looked up from his menu and asked, “Do you know what you want?”

The second sentence not only tells us who is speaking (confusion problem) but also shows the reader what John is doing while speaking (stasis problem). 

Solution: Include necessary actions. To add realistic, and necessary, movement to dialogue, the author needs to imagine the scene in his or her mind, and then describe what occurs. The challenge for the writer is to determine which actions are necessary to understanding the scene, the characters, or the meaning of the dialogue. For example, the author of this sample could have written the following. 

“You already have.”
Tom leaned forward, mouth agape. “Huh?”
“Remember those burgers we ate when I had you for a cookout last month?”
“Please,” Tom said, “don’t tell me that was horse meat.” He put his hands over his ears and scrunched up his face.
“Ok, I won’t,” John said and smiled broadly. “But you sure enjoyed them.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”

 Now the reader knows what the characters are doing. Problem solved. 

3. Displacement Problems in Dialogue 

Problem: Where is the dialogue occurring? Events happen somewhere. Dialogue occurs in a place, not in a void. It has an environment. The environment includes sights, sounds, smells, and other people. The environment also includes thoughts and memories. Basically, anything that affects the characters’ words and actions are part of the environment. Displaced dialogue, meaning dialogue that occurs in a void, won’t engage the reader, won’t help the reader to visualize the scene, and won’t provide a context for the characters’ actions. 

Let’s study one line from the sample and ask questions about the environment.

“Holy cow! You’re right. That’s gross.”

Tom is upset about the fact that the restaurant serves horse meat. That’s pretty obvious from his words. Now, if the restaurant serves it, are the other patrons eating it? Can he detect an unusual smell in the air? If the kitchen door swings open, can he see a horse carcass hanging against the wall? Does Tom know anything about cultures where horse meat is eaten? What are his feelings about horses? This one line is crucial to the rest of the exchange, so let’s put it in place. 

Solution: Provide an environment. The author needs to show the environment for the dialogue, i.e., to put the dialogue in a place. When we imagine the scene mentally, we can identify parts of the environment that help the reader to understand the character’s actions and reactions. Think about both the external and internal environment. The external environment includes what occurs around the speakers. The internal environment includes what occurs in the speakers’ minds. This will also help solve confusion and stasis problems. When we put the sample dialogue in place, we get this. 

“Holy cow! You’re right.” Tom swept his eyes across the tables in the restaurant. Was anyone actually eating horse? “That’s gross.”
“Not really,” John said and set down his menu. “It’s pretty good, actually.”
The waitress came to take their order. John noted Tom’s discomfort and told her that they would probably need a few more minutes.
Tom leaned in and whispered, “There’s no way I would eat horse meat.”
“You already have.”
“Huh?”
“Remember those burgers we ate when I had you for a cookout last month?”
“Please,” Tom said, “don’t tell me that was horse meat.” He put his hands over his ears and scrunched up his face. He remembered eating two—and enjoying them.

Now the reader knows the environment for the dialogue. Problem solved. 

Conclusion 

By solving these three problems with writing dialogue—confusion, stasis, and displacement—an author can create dialogue that is important, that interests the reader, and that seems realistic. Take a look at Hemingway’s writing. Earnest Hemingway is known for his minimalist approach to writing, yet he, too, addresses these issues. And few readers would argue against the quality of his writing. Now examine your own writing and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Will the reader know who is speaking?
  2. Are the characters acting in a realistic manner?
  3. Does the dialogue occur in an environment? 

We ask these questions when working with clients, and we either advise the authors to revise their manuscripts or we do it ourselves, depending on the level of service. In either case, the result is great dialogue. 


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2 Comments

Filed under Authors, Editing, Writing

2 responses to “Solving Common Dialogue Problems

  1. Great post. How about writing one on detail? How do you draw the line between giving the reader a visual of what the world looks like, and not being one of those people who think good writing is:

    The jagged emerald leaves with golden tips and gossamer thread-like veins waved gently on blackened branches clothed in bark….

  2. Like most good advice, this stuff seems so obvious that it is easily and frequently overlooked.

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