It’s easy to be told that character dialogue in fiction should be short and sharp and punchy and witty but actually executing it without a little more guidance can be hard. I could tell you to watch everything Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon have ever written and you’d have some great examples.
But sometimes the easier path is to start with what not to do. So here are a few pieces of dialogue your characters should never say.
“Tell Me About It”
It’s almost twenty years since my first class as part of my Advanced Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing and I can still remember my Novel teacher telling us how “Tell me about it” was the most overused piece of dialogue in Hollywood and that it applied equally to books. And it was funny. I never noticed it on my own, even though I went to the movies every week and spent the rest of my non-writing and non-studying time watching more movies at home and reading as many books as I could. But as soon as he said it, I began to notice it everywhere.
So if you don’t want to end up being a cautionary tale in a first-year writing course, leave it out.
“Hello”, “Hi”, “Goodbye”, “See You Later”
A lot of dialogue, particularly greetings and farewells, while being proper and polite in real life, is boring and unnecessary in fiction. Leave them out.
Whether it’s asking if whoever they are talking to wants to hear the truth or prefacing that they’re about to deliver it, “Honestly?” (or “Honestly…”) is completely redundant. Just leave it out.
“As You Know…”
This is code for “We’re about to discuss something you already know the complete story of but I want to deliver the information to the reader in dialogue rather than prose”. It’s exposition. It’s telling instead of showing, which I think was the second thing I learned in Novel class not to do, right after “Tell me about it”. If you want to rehash something that both characters already know, then think about how this would happen in real life. The dialogue wouldn’t tell the whole story – it would need prose to fill in the gaps. And so should it be in fiction.
“How Dare You?”
Once upon a time “How dare you?” was the epitome of the expression of upper class outrage. Nowadays it understandably comes across as very dated. People aren’t held back by propriety or concerns about the reactions of others. In fact, in this day and age, people dare all the time. So asking this very old-fashioned question just makes your characters seem uptight and their dialogue seem stuffy.
There are exceptions to every rule. In the case of each of these instances, the exception is when you are using these bland pieces of dialogue to turn the blandness of them on their head. For example, in the episode “Mr Willis of Ohio” in The West Wing, CJ Cregg is struggling to understand the finer details of the census and asks Sam Seaborne for help by saying, “Tell me about it.” In its more commonly used sarcastic sense, this phrase tends to convey “I know exactly what you mean”. CJ uses it to seem cool and evoke this meaning even though she is actually and literally asking Sam to tell her about the census.
The best example of an absolutely imperative greeting is, of course, Tom Cruise’s “Hello?” at the end of Jerry McGuire. It’s followed by a rather lengthy speech about how much in love he is with Dorothy Boyd but it’s the greeting that is the most important part because it allows Renee Zellweger to deliver the beautiful, classic line, “You had me at ‘Hello’.”
In the case of “See you later”, I specifically recall a real life example of this. I previously worked in the global mobility industry (also known as relocation) and a niche part of the business is cross-cultural training, helping people moving and living in new countries to acclimatise to cultures different from their own. A cross-cultural expert gave me examples of why the service was so important including a recently arrived immigrant in a new country being farewelled with the phrase “See you later” and then expecting (although not really understanding when and where) they would see that person later on that same day.
For “Honestly?”, particularly when it is posed as a question, another character can respond with, “No. Lie to me instead.” Since “Honestly?” is usually deployed during emotionally intense conversations, the truth can be hard and characters might not be ready to hear it.
And for “As you know”, the best way to flip it on its head is to follow it up with a “What you don’t know” piece of dialogue. Unlike the scenario where both characters already know the entire story, in this situation one character knows slightly more than the other, usually something miraculous or important, and is about to reveal it.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any great exceptions to the rule in relation to “How dare you?” but there must be. There are always exceptions. And if there genuinely aren’t, they maybe you can be the first writer to do it. But take care. The line between corny dialogue and exceptions to the rule can be a very fine one.