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 reasons. In other words, when a scene calls for description, characterization, narration, internal thoughts, transitions, or other things—simply do it all with dialog!
Let me give you a gut-wrenching 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. You might bounce it in your hand to see if it feels weighty enough, like real gold. 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 dumb dialog, keep putting your descriptions into dialog!
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.
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 crappy dialog, you just might get away with it. After all, 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.
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 agrees, “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. Remember what David Farland always says, “Wretched dialog has a million and one uses!”
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