Writing bad dialog is almost an art form unto itself.
Recently I read a couple of stories where it felt as if the author was struggling to come up with bad dialog. So I thought I should give a few tips on how to do it properly.
The easiest way to write wretched dialog is to use dialog for the wrong things. In other words, when a scene calls for description, narration, transitions, introspection, characterization, or other things—simply do it all with dialog.
Bad Dialog in Place of Description
Let me give you an example. Our character, Joe, has just reached into the pocket of a dead man that he found washed up on a Florida beach. Now, the natural way to handle the scene would be to show the readers what Joe pulls from the dead man’s pocket. But instead you can do it in dialog, in this case, with another character, Ron:
Ron: Hey, what did you just find in that dead man’s pocket?
Joe: Why, it looks like . . . gold pieces of eight, dated 1702!
Can you see how well that works? I mean, if you pulled a piece of ancient gold from a dead man’s pocket, you’d probably take a bit of time wondering what it was, studying it, and turning it over in your hand. But you can handle it faster if you simply have a character blurt a perfectly accurate description. So if you want to win awards for bad dialog, keep putting your descriptions into dialog!
Bad Dialog in Place of Transitions
Here’s how to write a terrible transition. We have just had two men meet, and one asked to meet in private. Let’s have Joe and Ron again.
Joe: Well, here we are in the Redwood National Forest. Sure is a foggy day, what with the wind coming in off the Pacific. What did you want to talk about, Ron, that made you drag me all the way out here, three miles into the trees? You afraid that our offices are being bugged or something?
In this case, the average author might start the scene with the two walking deep into a forest in the early dawn, smelling the fog off the sea, freezing from the cold. Personally, if I were Joe, I’d be a bit nervous, and I’d be wondering if Ron planned to murder me, but maybe that’s just me.
Bad Dialog in Place of Introspection
One of my favorite misuses of dialog is the spoken dialog that should be internal. For example, let’s say that Joe goes to the funeral of Ron’s mother. He walks into the foyer and is approaching the deceased, with people both ahead and behind him. He sees the old crone in her casket, dressed nicely, and then whispers to himself, “I never did like the old bag, but she looks pretty hot today. . . .”
Now, most folks would think that Joe would have to be literally insane to say something like that in public. But as a master of bad dialog, you just might get away with it. After all, I think that by now you’ve established that Joe has diarrhea of the mouth and never can shut up, so maybe readers won’t notice that you’re trying to tell your story through dialog alone.
Bad Dialog in Place of Characterization
Then of course, you can always characterize people by having one character talk about another. For example, Joe might tell Ron, “You know, my daughter Kary is so introverted, I can’t understand why she would want to become President of the United States.”
“She is introverted,” Ron says, “but you know, she also wants to save the country from fracking, and I don’t think that she can come up with any other way to do it.”
That one always works.
Just remember, if you want to become a master of ridiculously bad dialog, the first rule is to use dialog for everything—for descriptions, for internal thoughts, for narrating your scenes, for transitions and deep characterization. Wretched dialog has a million uses!
Apex Glimpses, News, & Shout-outs!
NEW from MyStoryDoctor.com! The Triarchy Method of Story: A New Writing Course by September C. Fawkes.
Craft your best book by focusing on what matters most: The “bones” of story.
This content-focused course will help you:
- Brainstorm better and more relevant material
- Evaluate what ideas most belong in your story (preventing you from writing hundreds of pages that need to be scrapped), and
- Craft a page-turning plot with compelling characters that sticks with readers long after they’ve closed the book (. . . and hopefully leads them to preorder your next book).
- And more
If you’ve found yourself writing and rewriting the same scenes, acts, or arcs, only to make them marginally better; or have struggled creating complex characters who are engaged in meaningful plots; or if you’ve been experiencing writer’s block over what you need to write next and how… The Triarchy Method will show you how to write a stronger, solid story by focusing on the “bones” of the story.
Character is represented by the rib cage—it houses the heart of story. It’s how the audience gains emotional experience from the narrative, through (to some degree) empathy.
Plot is represented by the backbone—it holds the story upright and together. It’s the curvature that makes up the narrative arc, the spine that runs from beginning to end.
Theme is represented by the skull—it hosts the intellect of story. It’s how the audience gleans meaning that sticks with them long after the narrative is over. It’s why the story matters.
This live, online class is limited to 10 students and will focus on the core principles of each of the “bones” and how to structure them. Classes start March 7 and run Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 pm Mountain Time (8:30pm EST) for a total of 23 classes. Classes ends on May 25.
For more information, visit https://mystorydoctor.com/the-triarchy-method-of-story/
About the Instructor
September C. Fawkes has worked in the fiction-writing industry for over ten years and has been editing stories for longer. She has edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors, as well as new writers. She has worked on manuscripts written for middle grade, young adult, and adult readers, and specializes in fantasy and science fiction.
For seven years, she worked through New York Times best-selling author David Farland, providing feedback on his workshop students’ assignments, editing their manuscripts, and sometimes, even editing David’s own books.
When not working, she is running an award-winning writing tip blog. She has also served as a writing coach on Writers Helping Writers and teaches at writing conferences. Some may say she needs to get a social life. It’d be easier if her fictional one wasn’t so interesting.
More information & Resources about Querying with Patrick Hopkins and Morgan Hazelwood
These writers have helped other writers get page requests and agent-representation.
From Patrick Hopkins: “I’m sorry I’ve had to close to queries for the most part. You can still find me in my feedback group, and I livestream submission package editing as a charity fundraiser every other Monday from 9:30 p.m. to midnight with Morgan Hazelwood. Links to those streams are on her YouTube channel. Otherwise, I wish you every possible success with my resources and these hireable query editors. Good luck <3″ (See below)
My most important resource (you MUST use this BEFORE you work with me):
My second-most important resource (you MUST use this BEFORE you work with me):
Twitter pitching help:
Background on me:
Short story collections:
“How should my query look?”
On passive verbs in queries. Query length etc. data. How to solve three advanced query problems. Query help: When early details disappear. Query help: How to fix first chapter bias. How to find typos. Why, nouns? On process language. How to use/fix decentering and metonymy.
“Aaaaaaah! Everything is broken and/or on fire!”
Form rejections compilation project:
Query help: feedback or form? (and the database)How to say you’re seeking new representation because you’re no longer with your agent.
How to say an editor at a press/publisher or credible other has expressed interest in your work.
How to reference Twitter interaction/a pitch like.
How to say you were selected for a mentorship program (Author Mentor Match, Pitch Wars, Sewanee, etc.).
How to say you have or are pursuing an MFA.
When it’s okay to write a LONG bio.
Yes, mentioning MSWL (which you CAN control) is almost as effective as getting a Twitter pitch like (which you CAN’T control).
Yes, you can query only one agent and get an offer. (But you shouldn’t. Batches of 5-10.)
Yes, you can query more than one book in a query. (But you shouldn’t.)
Yes, you can swear in a query (but be careful).
Yes, you can mention your social media followings (but it’s uncommon).
Yes, you can write in first person (but it’s a bad idea).
How to get your synopsis to fit a page.
Another synopsis guide.
Janet Reid (Query Shark) on synopses.
Jane Friedman’s advice.
Alexa Donne (video) advice.
Synopsis services you might need.
A literary synopsis.
Links to more synopses.
A “literary or mainstream” synopsis.
Shannon Snow on how to write a synopsis.
Cutting a synopsis from short to shorter.
UK-specific tips for fiction submission packages:
Another Search Tool to Make Things Easier
Apex has been busy creating new “At a Glance” for meetings: Who is presenting and what the topics are, along with searchable Indexes for the vast library of replays from our Strategy and Mastermind zooms. And next up is a Searchable doc for all the Courses and Lectures taught predominantly by our late Master Storyteller, David Farland. This is a great opportunity to learn from the best. And how many courses and lectures are there? Over 30!
These tools include “At a Glance” for both Strategy Meetings and for Mastermind, and we have a searchable index for the replays.
The Course and Lecture Searchable