Dialogue sounds false whenever it contains information that the

characters would already know but the writer inserts as exposition, as in “My mother, Geraldine, would be very happy to come to your house for

dinner Uncle Joseph.” Obviously, the dialogue should be more along the

lines of “Mom would love to come for dinner, thanks.” We assume the

uncle knows the speaker’s mother’s name already.

Dialogue also sounds stilted when characters speak outside of their

own idiom. When my first novel was being copyedited in manuscript, an

overzealous copy editor wanted me to change a line in which an Alaskan

fisherman in a bar jokes about committing “hari-kari.” The copy editor changed it to the correct term for Japanese ritual suicide, hara-kiri. I

argued that my character would use the familiar Americanized version,

even if it were incorrect. Had the character called it the more formal term

in Japanese, seppuku, the dialogue would have been even more stilted.

In that instance the dialogue was being criticized inappropriately for

being too informal; when the dialogue is too formal, it also becomes

stilted. While a certain academic might speak in term of dialectics and

discourse modalities to his advanced literary theory class, if he spoke that

way to his plumber it would either be laughable or pathetic. If not being used for comic effect it would just be bad dialogue. As I noted in the

dialogue chapter earlier, read your dialogue aloud. If you find yourself

stumbling over the words your characters are speaking in your scenes, it’s

time to revise. 

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