Oversharing in Dialogue and Why It's Not Good for Fiction Either

Tuesday, September 05, 2017
Dialogue is a tricky part of writing fiction. For some people, writing dialogue spills out of them naturally, and no one ever questions whether of not it "sounds real." That's the thing--dialogue is not really real--we don't want to read an entire conversation, starting with the "Hi, How's it going?" and ending with the "Okay, see you later." Every scene of dialogue has to move the story forward, and there has to be a point. So when someone says to make the dialogue sound natural, she doesn't really mean like a conversation we hear between two friends at the Olive Garden, but natural enough that readers are not taken out of the story.

Besides stilted dialogue, where every character sounds the same and the speech is too prim and proper, the worst dialogue offense is when characters overshare in a conversation. It's obvious an author is using this conversation as a device to share unknown information with the reader.

Here's an example:

"Honey, remember when you cheated on me with your secretary and I didn't talk to you for two weeks, and then I hired someone to sabotage your business?" Berta said as she took a bite of eggs in the tiny kitchen she shared with her husband.

"Yes, sweetie, of course. I was in prison for a year for fraud when I really did nothing wrong, but now I am blackmailing you to stay with me." Fred smiled over his pancakes.

So, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but since I critique a lot of novels and flash fiction, I read conversations where it is obvious that the author is trying to figure out how to work in the backstory the reader needs to know about these characters. But think about real life--in the above example, Berta would not even be talking to Fred, let alone reminding him of all the bad things she did to him out of spite.

How could you let the reader know that information without a big info dump or oversharing in dialogue? Try using actions and internal thoughts, surrounding the dialogue:

Berta stabbed her sausage link like she was murdering it. How did she end up back in this tiny kitchen table with her disgusting husband? "How's your new secretary working out?" It was ironic that now, Berta didn't care what Fred did with his secretary, and this one was twenty years older with a well-placed mole on her chin.

Fred's smile gave her chills. "She's great. Everything's just great. You know, new clients really trust an insurance man who spent a year in jail. It's at the top of everyone's list of what they want in a trusted relationship."  

Good, Berta thought. Nothing should be easy for that cheating, sarcastic, low-life bastard. Now she just had to figure out how to get out of this marriage with her reputation and bank account in check.

Readers don't know quite as much as they did with the first conversation, but they know enough to understand this dysfunctional marriage. Plus, in the second conversation, there's some mystery to exactly what happened, which will hopefully make readers flip the pages to find out.

Look at your current work-in-progress, and read your dialogue. Are your characters oversharing because you couldn't figure out how to fit in the backstory? Take it out and work it in another way. Think about how these two characters would act together if they were real and make your conversations sound "natural enough".

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, teacher, and writing coach, living in St. Louis, MO. Find out more about her novel writing class here. The next one starts the first Friday in October.  Find out more about her editing services here

lightbulb photo above by thomasbrightbill on Flickr.com



Angela Mackintosh said...

Oooh, I want to read that book! I like Berta. :) This is helpful advice, Margo!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--When writers can do it (dialogue) well, it's a pleasure to read.

With all the editing and critique work you do, I hope you never see anything even close to that exaggerated example you shared. That's really awful. ;)

Margo Dill said...

Haha! I made Berta up just for this blog post.

I don't see anything that awful. :) But it can feel that exaggerated sometimes if the dialogue is really jarring.

Mary Horner said...

You can usually tell when someone uses dialog as an information dump, and I love your examples! Good job!

Renee Roberson said...

Ugh! I so struggle with dialogue myself. Sometimes I'll feel like it's flowing well and then I go back and read it and it's practically your Berta example. Food for thought--thanks!

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