Peeves: Undeveloped/Unsupported Dialog

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This is one that seems to have been bombarding me quite a bit lately, because apparently a lot of authors, even some that are generally well rated, do this.

What I mean by undeveloped or unsupported dialog is when you have characters having a conversation, but the only thing that conversation contains is the text involved in the dialog.  There is little to nothing that is added to that to help the reader connect with what is being said.  Little to no actions by the characters, almost no scene continuation or descriptions, and very little thoughts or emotions expressed by the characters during the dialog segment.

Yes, readers connect to the words written on the page, but part of being able to do that is by allowing them to feel immersed in the scene.  When you throw only the words the characters are speaking at them without adding color, texture, emotion or dimension to those words, they kind of feel like they are just floating out there unanchored.  You can kind of compare it to having a conversation on the internet.  It is really easy to mistake what a person is saying without any real context to back it up.  You can take it the wrong way or add your own emotional emphasis to the conversation that may not actually be there and that gives it a whole other meaning.

In books, readers need that extra information to connect better to the characters and what is actually meant and going on.  Often, if an author didn’t support their conversations, it is easy to feel that the characters lack emotion or that the emotion the writer is trying to convey isn’t genuine.  Sometimes a reader can totally miss out on subtle clues that the author is trying to impart as well.

An example of a bad conversation set up I read set the scene of the two main characters sitting down on a couch with drinks to talk.  After that little detail of what was going on outside of the conversation, there were about 3 pages of nothing but talking.  Not once was there a pause in the dialog to note that either character took a drink, shifted positions on the couch, neither touched the other character in any way (it was something of a romantic scene, or was supposed to be, there should have been small caresses and touches here and there).  There also weren’t any thoughts mentioned from either character’s perspective as to how they were taking the conversation, not even mentions of facial expression changes, something as simple as smiles or frowns or how something was said.  Because it was missing all of those things, what should have been a kind of deep and important conversation came across as dry and lackluster and I felt like I’d missed something.

There are so many places in a typical written conversation to add depth and context to a scene.  In a lot of cases, it doesn’t even need a whole lot, but just enough to give the conversation a fuller feel.  Without those things, it is so much harder for readers to connect to characters in an emotional sense.  Absolutely, dialog is integral to a good book.  But because we do not get to actually see the characters in front of us like we do in a movie, we cannot see the body language and the environment, the emotional impact the words are having on the participants.  We need to be told about those things by the author.  The ones that don’t take the time to even put bits of that into their conversations are lazy in my opinion.

For me, if the dialog is presented without those critical supporting features, it can nearly kill a book no matter how well the author writes everything else.  I can think of a few authors that tend to write this way and, even though I often like their books, those books tend to get pushed to the bottom of my To Read list until I’ve already read the better books on that list.  It is surprising to me how many professionally published authors just don’t do really good dialog.  If they would take that little bit of extra effort, those books could easily go from good to excellent.

Author: TJ Fox

Slightly sane artist, book addict, wife and mother of 3 who is forever rethinking her place in this world.

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