2. THE SIN OF STILTED DIALOGUE
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.