Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, improving your writing is a case of learning craft, and sometimes it’s just about knowing what to tackle when you edit. Dramatic dialogue can benefit from both so, in this article, I’ll be outlining eight clichés to edit out of your work, as well as exploring the logic behind why they’re such a problem.
1. Too many pauses
Pauses are useful in dialogue, and especially useful in dramatic dialogue. Why? First of all, there’s realism to not finishing a thought. Real speech is choppy, with the specificity of written dialogue lost to tangents, hesitations, and paraverbal communication like tone and pacing.
Second, pauses can be used to imply emotion. When a character struggles to say something, the reader understands the emotional weight of their situation. Finally, pauses create opportunities for interesting character interactions and engaging exposition. If one character begins a thought and can’t finish, how the other characters react to that can tell the reader a lot more than one person’s opinion. Here’s one character expressing their fear about a situation:
“I’m just afraid that if we go too far into the darkness, we won’t come back.”
The above is fine – now we know how this character feels – but if another character finishes the thought, we get a lot more out of the same idea:
“I’m just afraid that if we go too far into the darkness…”
“We won’t come back?”
Now, we don’t just know how Character A feels, we also know a little about how Character B feels and we get some insight into their relationship. So, if those are all the great things pauses can do, what’s the problem?
The problem is that one pause at an effective moment can add realism, communicate emotion, and engage the reader more thoroughly, but five pauses in a single paragraph of dialogue feels like melodrama.
Pretty much any device used to excess will distract the reader. Humans are good at spotting patterns, so the first pause is a pause, the second pause is ‘another pause’, and the third pause is ‘huh, these people really can’t finish a sentence’.
There’s also an issue when a pause doesn’t feel natural. This is a problem a lot of writers encounter – the character can’t finish a sentence because it’s too momentous, but they’re not the kind of character who would believably struggle with that. The most common example is a hard-as-nails action hero unable to articulate their feelings about their mission but completely unflappable when gunning down bad guys. The kind of character who chokes out ‘If anything happens to her…’ but blasts the hostage-taker away with a quip ten seconds later. This kind of forced emotion is intended to intensify the moment, but under the wrong circumstances, it just feels unbelievable.When a dramatic writing device backfires, it creates huge distance between the reader and your work.Click To Tweet
The same is true with the other benefits of a pause. Dialogue that ‘feels’ real is great, but dialogue that tails off as much as real speech is just irritating. Likewise, having one character finish another character’s thought is only engaging if it shows a degree of insight – if any normal person would know what Character A is saying, it just feels silly to have Character B jump in. For example:
“If anything happens to her…”
“It’ll destroy you?”
Here, the reader doesn’t see camaraderie or empathy or commonality of experience, mostly because they’re too busy rolling their eyes.
Pauses are useful in dialogue, but use them sparingly, and be sure that when you do, you’re complementing a dramatic moment, not trying to create one.
2 & 3. Nodding & shrugging
When we talk, we tend to complement what we’re saying with body language. Replicating this tendency in literature is useful for several reasons. First, it does exactly what body language does in real life, emphasizing and clarifying intended meaning. Second, it stops dialogue ‘bunching’ and gives the author a way to subtly reaffirm who’s talking. Third, it can help pace a scene. In Passing Time Is The Secret To Improving Your Story, we talked about how giving characters a task to perform as they talk means that you can pause the conversation both inside and outside the story, controlling how the reader experiences time, and that’s also the case with body language.
So, what’s the problem? Well, the variety of body language we display isn’t matched by the vocabulary we use to describe it. In order to avoid convoluted description, most authors tend to group a host of movements into ‘nodding’ and ‘shrugging’. These terms are versatile in intent, but they quickly get repetitive in practice.
The best way to combat this is to try and deliberately limit the nodding and shrugging that goes on in any one passage of dialogue. Search for ‘nod’ and ‘shrug’ and, where a few appear together, decide which is most useful and ditch the rest. Something that’s worth keeping in mind is that this generalized body language tends to occur when the author knows that dialogue has gone on for too long without interruption. If a passage is peppered with nods and shrugs, don’t just get rid of them – recognize this as a symptom of excessive dialogue and reappraise the scene. What task can you give these characters so that their dialogue is interrupted by specific, compelling body language?
Turning is an example of cinematic writing that rarely belongs in dramatic dialogue. When writers use ‘turning’, they usually describe a character moving their gaze to another character to underline a dramatic moment. For example:
- “I understand,” she said, turning to look at me, “but that doesn’t mean I agree.”
- She turned to look at me, saying, “I understand, but that doesn’t mean I agree.”
- She looked into my eyes, saying, “I understand, but that doesn’t mean I agree.”
When you’re working in visual media (like a movie), this type of turning can feel compelling and natural. This is mostly because the actor is always visible – the viewer ‘sees’ a lot of body language without it necessarily being emphasized. In writing, this isn’t the case; the reader doesn’t see many of the fine details of what a character’s doing. This creates two issues when it comes to ‘turning’:
- The reader imagines their own body language,
- Body language that is specified is especially pronounced.
So, when a character suddenly turns to say something, the reader perceives this as a dramatic act that they then have to reconcile with the fact that they’d assumed these two characters were looking at each other all along. If a character turns to, or even looks at, something new, the implication is that they were previously looking at something else – even facing a different direction. The effect is melodramatic, as if the character has just whirled around from dramatically staring into the fireplace.When it comes to dramatic dialogue, characters spend too much time nodding, shrugging, and turning.Click To Tweet
If you want a character to turn, it’s usually a good idea to first fix their gaze elsewhere. Ensure that the reader knows they’re staring into the fire or out of the window – something that broadcasts where they’re looking so that, when they turn, it doesn’t conflict with what the reader was imagining. Even then, turning on dialogue is unavoidably dramatic, so limit yourself to very few occasions where it’s the case.
5. Overusing names
Using a character’s name in dialogue implies a manner of speech that’s useful for dramatic dialogue. ‘Put that down’ can be said in a variety of ways, whereas ‘David, put that down’ brings a little more context with it. There’s also the fringe benefit of clarifying who’s talking without using dialogue tags.
The problem is that, in real life, we don’t use each other’s names that often, so when characters can’t go four sentences without doing so, it starts to feel odd. The good news is that, on a practical level, it’s not necessary. Dialogue tags (‘he said’/‘Clara asks’) are more apparent to the author than they’ll be to the reader, and what looks clumsy to an author often won’t even register for anyone else.
Otherwise, we’re back to the tactic of identifying clumps of names and setting a low limit on how many you allow to remain in your work. In real life, we’re most likely to use someone’s name when the specificity of doing so changes the meaning of what we’re saying.
The most common version of this might be worry. If David jumps up onto a high wall, his mother says ‘David, get down!’ because there’s an element of panic – instinctively, she needs him to hear her. A more complex version of the same reasoning might be if David’s husband doesn’t feel like David listens to him. When this character says, ‘That’s not what I said, David’, they’re not just clarifying their position like they would with anyone else, there’s also the subtle accusation that David is continuing a pattern of not listening to them. Again, the name appears instinctively because it’s part of what’s being said – it doesn’t just ‘direct’ the sentence, it’s part of the content.
In contrast, imagine that a character named Corrine has misunderstood David’s husband, but there’s no history of her having done so before. If he replies, ‘That’s not what I said, Corrine’, this either sounds strangely irritable or it just doesn’t make sense. Do it a few more times and the reader knows your dialogue isn’t working, even if they can’t put their finger on why.
There’s a whole spectrum to how this type of specificity works and lots of occasions where names are appropriate, but this offers a good test for your own dialogue. Why was someone’s name just used? Is it part of what’s being said or just a clarification of who it’s being said to? If the latter, you’ll almost always be right to cut it.
6. Ominous cliffhangers
Ominous cliffhangers are definitely dramatic. When an author writes an ominous cliffhanger, they have a section of dialogue end with an unresolved comment that implies big things are to come. For example:
- “Look, I know things look bleak, I know they look hopeless. But I’ve got an idea.”
- “Look at you. You think you’ve won, you think it’s all over. You have no idea what’s coming.”
- “It was a good idea, but it didn’t work. I think it’s time to get serious.”
If handled deftly – that is, if they pay off on tension and pace built up in the preceding scene – such moments can be incredibly engaging. But tacked onto a passage of dialogue just to end with flair, they feel lazy and, again, melodramatic. They can also harm realism, since it’s hard to imagine any normal conversation taking place after a character just said something that’s so clearly meant to end a scene.
Cliffhangers gain their validity and pizzazz from the dialogue that builds to them, so like any dramatic device, they’ll feel cheesy when mishandled. Commonly, however, an ominous cliffhanger doesn’t result from an author’s love of drama but from their discomfort with ending a scene. The ominous cliffhanger is often there to punctuate a conversation, and that’s rarely necessary when the conversation is itself engaging. In short, if the dialogue is already dramatic, you don’t need the cliffhanger. If the dialogue isn’t dramatic, the cliffhanger isn’t going to save it. This is something we covered in The Better Way To End Your Scene (With Exercises), so all I’ll say here is that this is another argument for having your characters perform a task as they talk. Ending the task can be a natural cue to end the scene without falling back on cheesy lines.
You wouldn’t think that stopping in a doorway would be common enough to list with mainstays like nodding and shrugging, but it is. Another detail that tends to work in visual media but doesn’t work in writing – and a common accompaniment to the ominous cliffhanger – stopping in the doorway is now such a cliché that it will rarely work in a scene.
When characters stop in doorways they conclude their discussion with another character, get up to leave, and then deliver their final line from the doorway. Or, if the character who’s going to get the last word is the one who owns the room, they’ll save their ominous warning for the moment the other character’s hand touches the door handle.
It’s hard to write this device in a way that doesn’t come across as cheesy, but it tends to be worse than everything else on this list. Why? Because it’s not just the author’s choice to have the character stop in the doorway, it’s the character’s. The reader perceives that this is an affectation meant to make the moment feel cool, and not only does it fail, but it can make the character feel foolish as it does so.If your dramatic scene ends with a one-liner in a doorway, it’s time to rethink.Click To Tweet
Here’s the thing – this device is actually relatively true to life, it’s just the motivations that are a little off. Medical professionals in particular are familiar with the ‘doorknob question’: the thing that a patient was too embarrassed to talk about until the exact last moment they’d be able to bring it up. It’s easy to see how an understanding of this basic human behavior – we don’t say things we don’t want to say until we have to – has been warped by its overuse in fiction. If you’re an excellent writer, you can probably invoke this realistic behavior without the melodrama, but until the ubiquity of this cliché has died down a little, it’s probably a good idea to have your characters conclude their discussions far away from the nearest doorway.
8. Lines you heard on TV
When providing advice about dramatic dialogue, a lot of sources just offer a list of clichéd phrases that you should cut from your writing. It’s not bad advice, but such lists are never complete; indeed, they’re always growing. Lines like ‘In English, please’, ‘This isn’t what it looks like’, ‘We’ve got company’, ‘Don’t you think I know that?’, etc. are corny, but they didn’t start out that way – their problem is overuse, not bad writing.
There’s no checklist of clichés that you can run through to check your work is ‘safe’, so what can you do? Well, one test is to consider your dialogue in terms of what you’d expect to hear on television. No-one’s saying that everything your characters say has to be unique, but if the phrases you’re using slot into the kind of basic drama or comedy that would be on TV if you switched it on right now, they’re probably cliché.
Often, clichés turn up because of necessity – the protagonists need to be alerted to the arrival of some antagonists, and ‘We’ve got company!’ is a simple way to do that which the reader will understand – plus, maybe it’s a little funny, or at least funny enough that the energy doesn’t dip.
In such instances, a handy cliché won’t rip your reader out of the story, but clichés pile up. When you choose an overused way of sharing information, you’re demonstrating to the reader that the information you’re conveying is important and the way in which you’re conveying it is not. That might be true, but say it enough times and you’ll teach them to ignore your craft.
Again, moderation is key, but it’s also worth reassessing clichéd dialogue with reference to its purpose. If you chose a generic way to communicate what’s happening, is that because the event itself is generic or obvious without comment?
When it comes to these clichés, the bad news is that they’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s possible that you’ll spot all eight at once, as in the example below:
“Are… are you…”
“No,” Owen said with a deferential nod, “but the thing is…”
He stood, walking to the doorway. Just before he was out of sight, he turned back, shrugging.
“I’m not the one you need to worry about, Alan.”
The good news is that, even if that’s the case, you don’t need to worry. This is what editing is for, and a writer’s skill isn’t in instinctively avoiding such things, but in identifying and improving them before inviting readers to engage with a text.Don’t despair just because you find clichés – dramatic dialogue can be improved as you edit.Click To Tweet
Whether it’s a phrase from TV or a character who can’t stop nodding, clichés tend to appear as the easiest possible way to express a simple sentiment. Getting rid of them is just a case of knowing what to look for and being able to assess how else you can say it. Write with a free heart and then apply a studious mind to your editing – that’s the way to craft amazing dramatic dialogue.
What dialogue has made you cringe, and where did you read it? Let me know in the comments, and check out How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words and Is Your Dialogue Just Characters Talking? for more great advice.