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Story Design Tips: 10 Dialogue Don'ts
Here are ten often-repeated dialogue mistakes that you want to avoid.
July 27, 2011
7 Min Read
We’ll close this five-part Story Design Tips series about dialogue with a series of dialogue don’ts. These are mistakes that are too-often repeated but should in no way appear in a professional dialogue.
Dialogue Don’t #1: Don’t Repeat People’s Names
It’s very tempting to start almost every line towards a person with his name. “Lisa, don’t do that!” “Charley! I told you not to attack the aliens!” “Sam, Stop!”
Every line, by itself, seems fine when phrased like this. You’re not always sure that the players remember what the characters’ names are. And adding a name makes a line go more smoothly.
However, overdoing it just sounds bad. There are other ways to make sure your characters’ names are remembered. And if you need something to make a line go more smoothly, it means your line isn’t written well enough, and you should change it.
Dialogue Don’t #2: Don’t Answer a Dialogue Line Directly
There are many examples to this: “Is this seat taken?” “No, it isn’t. Please sit.”; or “You shot me in the face!” “I didn’t mean to shoot you in the face!”; or “M-16 is my favorite weapon. What’s yours?” “Mine is the Uzi.”; etc.
As you can see, in each of these lines there is an absolute direct answer to the line that came before it. The problem with lines like these is that they make the characters flat and one-dimensional. It doesn’t seem that way when you write the line, but people in real life rarely answer each other in such a direct fashion. Each person comes from his own world, with his own agenda, and speaks from his own internal place.
The kind of dialogue that appears in the examples, however, stems from the writer’s need to do something well rather than the characters’ needs to do X and Y. This kind of mistake is easy to spot (check if your characters are answering directly rather than from their own world), and easy to fix. Remember what we talked about during the last four articles: What is the character’s true goal? What is his action? How does he perform it?
Dialogue Don’t #3: Don’t Say the Character’s Subtext
When you have the character say his action when he performs that action, or when you have the character state his true goal while trying to achieve it, or when the character explains the deepest thing he has (except for rare moments of truth which appear during emotional breaking points), that flattens the dialogue.
People are rarely so self-aware as to be so true with themselves while speaking. The more real behavior is that in which a person has goal X, but explains it to himself as goal Y. That’s when you can feel free to have him say that his goal is Y.
Remember, dialogue on the screen is a canvas written with people. It’s got more than one attribute you can manipulate simultaneously. One is the words that come out. Another is the physical action. If you make both the same thing, you lose depth.
Dialogue Don’t #4: Don’t Use Words If You Can Avoid Them
Remember that dialogue isn’t words. Dialogue is actions and reactions, and the words are but a shadow of the actions. Always check to see if the words you wanted to convey can be delivered without words: With a nudge or a wink, with a head toss or a turn of the character’s back, with a sigh or with an angry face, with a slap or with a bit lip, with a hand on another character’s back or with a mock kiss, etc. A gesture is more powerful than words.
Dialogue Don’t #5: Don’t Characterize Through Length of Speech
The most common way to characterize in SF, when you don’t have a good characterization in mind, is to allow a person to talk a lot when they’re nervous. This is done quite often in SF, and it’s just bad writing. It never works. The players/viewers ‘understand’ what you’re doing, but the characterization is just plain unrealistic.
Dialogue Don’t #6: Don’t Mention the Mechanics of the Dialogue
“Boy, I sure talk a lot when I’m nervous.”
“Wow. That was a long speech I just gave.”
“He doesn’t say more than three words at a time.”
“That was a sentence that didn’t go anywhere.”
“He’s from Planet So and So. He doesn’t use verbs when he speaks.”
Writers think about these things, but normal people don’t. And so normal people (your characters) won’t comment on themselves in such a self-aware way. Nor will they be aware that they’re speaking in sentences or paragraphs or using grammar. They’re performing actions to achieve goals, which means that at best they’ll characterize what they say as ‘talk’, but usually they’ll just be going through it without noticing what they’re doing, only how close or how far they are from their goal.
Dialogue Don’t #7: Don’t Say Anything Twice
It’s tempting to say something twice. It feels right to say something again and again. At first, it seems like it adds emphasis. You may think it makes the line stronger. But visual dialogue is different from dialogue in prose. You have to think in a ‘visual dialogue’ mentality. A line in a dialogue is actually a physical action. A dialogue line is something a person does, physically.
When he repeats a line, he stands in place rather than advances. It’s like you’re constantly stopping his advancement. If you cut his words in half, you allow him to perform his action better. If you just try and cut the second (or first) sentence, you’ll see (see, not read) that the scene works more smoothly. This entire paragraph is twice as long as it should be, and it’s tiring. If I cut it in half, it would be so much better.
The only reason to repeat a line (and with the same phrasing, no less,) is if the action is different or different in intensity (weaker or stronger). Like this: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Dialogue Don’t #8: Don’t Fill Dead Space with Words
Words are not a filler. They are a last resort.
People try to achieve their goals first through physical actions and gestures, and only then, when they can’t achieve their goals with actions alone, will they use words.
So please don’t ever throw around words cheaply. Remember that words need to be shadows of actions. When you throw them cheaply, it’s the equivalent of paint a canvas with colors but forgetting to add the composition.
Dialogue Don’t #9: Don’t Show Intensity through Words
“I mean it.”
“I really hate him!”
“This is very, very important.”
First of all, there’s one ‘very’ too many, performing the same action. So drop one of them. However, “This is very important” is also bad. Again, we’re talking about how different visual dialogue is. If something is very important, then have the intensity of it shown through how the person says it (intensity of voice, intensity of eyes, emphasis of body, etc.).
Anything that shows how much the character means something, how much he needs something, how strong his emotion is – should be deleted from the text and conveyed through the character’s physical actions.
Dialogue Don’t 10: Don’t Let the Character Tell Us What He Feels
A character shouldn’t say what he feels, he should feel what he feels and then say what comes from that feeling. Don’t mention your character’s emotions, make him act from them. You can, however, have the character mention an emotion, or even say that he feels emotion X, as long as he feels emotion Y.
Well, that’s it for dialogue for the time being. Next time we’re going to start a new Story Design Tips series about comedy.
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