Stilted Dialogue – “helpful” tips

Last time, I had some mildly dark things to say about sales people who regard the words ‘No, thank you’ as some kind of personal challenge. I complained about their increasing habit of taking my words literally, deliberately misunderstanding me in the hope I will suddenly change my mind and allow them to sell me something. Top tip guys, annoying me is not the way forwards with regards to my buying your goods and/or services.

What we say is, generally, not what we literally mean, despite the hopes of the utility monkeys. When in conversation with a real life meat-world person, our brains are constantly analysing the data we receive, predicting the end of their sentence. Our reply is formed well before they have finished speaking. This biology should also be borne in mind when writing.

Nine times out of ten, when I see stilted or unrealistic dialogue, it’s because the characters are responding directly to one another. It’s a particular problem when one is trying to write more heated moments.

Take the following:

‘You are a vain creature indeed, Miss Bitts,’ Genghis said, shuffling his swarthy eyebrows up and down to ensure she knew just how much he meant it.

Ophelia wheeled round, her full skirt knocking a lamp off a table and onto the head of a passing puppy. ‘I am not vain. You are a liar and a chancer and I will have nothing more to do with you.’

‘A chancer, you say? And a liar? Well, what of your other deliberately fallible traits? Those one’s designed to make you seem three-dimensional?’

‘I have no others.’

‘You are not stupid? Willful? Tempestuous?’

‘I am none of those things! Sirrah! You are cruel!’

Genghis strode across the room. He trod on the puppy. ‘I adore those things about you. Come, be tempestuous with me.’

‘Oh, Genghis, I apologise for all of the above!’ Ophelia swooned in his arms; his handlebar mustache began making its predictable progress down her bosom; the puppy, disoriented by the blow of Genghis’s boot, fell silently from the window and disappeared into the snow-flecked night below.

As you, hopefully, see, this is terrible. There’s no indication the characters’ individual trains of thought – they respond to each other in an entirely unrealistic manner.

Consider the “improved” version:

‘You are a vain creature indeed, Miss Bitts,’ Genghis said, shuffling his swarthy eyebrows up and down to ensure she knew just how much he meant it.

Ophelia wheeled round, her full skirt knocking a lamp off a table and onto the head of a passing puppy. ‘I am not vain. You are a liar and a chancer and I will have nothing more to do with you.’

‘In addition to this you are vapid, willful and tempestuous.’ He threw his arms in the air. ‘Only ten minutes ago you were asking the innkeeper if he’d give you a discount on the rooms because you were so very good looking.’

‘Well, I am! You, though, are cruel! Cruel I say!’

‘Do you honestly believe any man would want such traits in a woman?’

‘Cruel sirrah! Cruel!’

Genghis raised his eyes to his creator. ‘Must I?’ He carefully picked up the dazed puppy and placed it safely on a high shelf where it could come to no immediate harm but from which it would fall later that evening. ‘Although I should hate you, I find you very alluring. Come to bed with me my sweet.’

Ophelia wrinkled her nose in what she thought was a coquettish manner, not noticing Genghis’s suppressed shudder. ‘I would love to. Let me first go and get the money I paid for my room back from the innkeeper.’

Hopefully this illustrates my point. I think I had one.

By concentrating on what each character is thinking, the dialogue flows more naturally. In this extract, Genghis has already made up his mind about the kind of women Ophelia is and intends to tell her. It doesn’t really matter what she says in reply, he’s not looking for a response from her any more than she is actually taking anything he says to heart. He doesn’t respond to her accusations of cruelty because he understands she doesn’t actually mean them, she’s just looking for his response because she wants to know he cares what she thinks of him.

How characters respond to each other give us an indication of the tone without clogging the text with a thousand (repetitive) dialogue tags. It’s a useful trick.

Another tip for stilted dialogue: try introducing some delays in the character responses. If Char A says something, have Char B finish their own train of thought before addressing it.

Try it.

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One response to “Stilted Dialogue – “helpful” tips”

  1. uma says :

    good idea I will give it a shot

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