This weekend, a friend and I went out for dinner. During the conversation, the subject of musicals came up. I mentioned that I love the music from The Scarlet Pimpernel, but its dialogue is written abysmally.

I mean, even in the 1790s, who would actually say, "I cut all ties with that murderous regime--and with you, Chauvelin" in a normal conversation?

Honestly, my reaction to that line probably looks exactly like many people's initial reactions to the sounds in this hilarious video: the kind of whole-body cringe that makes someone simultaneously scrunch up their face, hunch their shoulders, and tense their entire upper body. To borrow my favorite comment on said video:

"911, what's your emergency?" "I WOULD LIKE TO REPORT AN ASSAULT ON MY EARS."

So how do we avoid assaulting our audiences' ears (or, more commonly, eyes) with cringe-worthy dialogue? I keep two cardinal rules in mind when writing dialogue:

  1. Write the way people actually talk.

  2. Never, ever, info-dump in dialogue.

Conveniently, when you keep one of these rules, it makes it easier to keep the other. After all, most people don't info-dump in a regular conversation. They also don't typically say exactly what they're thinking or feeling. If they do, it's called on-the-nose dialogue, and it usually sounds terrible.  

As an example, let's look at an early scene from one of my screenplays-in-progress. To give some context, a royal family (King Marcus, Queen Lydia, and Princess Patricia) are playing in their gardens. Patricia (age five) has gone on ahead, but her parents have noticed a clothesline with a tapestry that reminds them of a close friend who betrayed them.  

If, as many amateur writers do, I wrote this scene with on-the-nose dialogue, this might be the result:

Marcus: I don't want to remember what happened with Damien [the villain]. We should get rid of that tapestry.

Lydia: It was your first big victory as king. It's important to remember it. Not just for us, but for the whole kingdom.

Patricia comes running back and points to a panel of the tapestry that shows Marcus and Lydia riding horses with Damien.

Patricia: Mother, look! There's you and Father! Who's that?

Marcus: I don't want to talk about it.

Patricia: But I wanna know!

Marcus walks away. Lydia and Patricia look at each other.

Patricia: Why did he do that?

Lydia: I don't think it's a good idea to tell you. When you're older, maybe. Let's do something else that'll cheer you both up. 

I'm cringing just proofreading that. Granted, Patricia's dialogue seems pretty true to life, because young children aren't good at concealing their feelings and tend to say exactly what they're thinking. But Marcus's and Lydia's dialogue is a different matter:

  • Many men don't openly express their feelings, especially in the Western culture this story is built on. Thus, Marcus's first speech feels unrealistic.

  • Lydia's first speech is an info dump. Judging by what Marcus has already said and the fact that the tapestry exists at all, he knows the significance of the events it shows. Lydia has no need to remind him.

  • Most parents wouldn't say to a young child, "I don't think it's a good idea to tell you." That's a good way to trigger repeated demands or whining for the information. And to truly distract the child, the parent would probably need to suggest a specific alternative activity instead of using the generic "Let's do something else."

In contrast, here's what I actually wrote for the dialogue in this scene:

Marcus: Why do we have that?

Lydia: Because you won.

Patricia comes running back and points to a panel of the tapestry that shows Marcus and Lydia riding horses with Damien.

Patricia: Mother, look! There's you and Father. Who's that?

Marcus: No one.

Patricia: Who’s No One?

Marcus walks away. Patricia and Lydia look at each other.

Patricia: Why did he do that?

Lydia: Because he ... wants to go riding.

Not only is this version more concise, but it also feels truer to real-life dialogue and tells us more about the characters. Marcus shuts down about certain topics, Patricia is curious and perceptive, and Lydia avoids difficult conversations and tries to keep everyone happy. This version also hints at conflict to come. Marcus and Lydia aren't being honest with Patricia about what happened and its effects (which is somewhat justifiable, given how young she is), but as she gets older, they won't be able to distract her from her questions so easily.

On-the-nose dialogue is one of the biggest issues I see writers struggle with. Fortunately, it's also one of my favorite things to fix! Click here to book a time for us to talk about how I can do it for you.

Write on,


(Thanks to Daniel Lonn for sharing their work on Unsplash.)