It will probably come as no surprise that editors enjoy the written word, which means that most of us wordsmiths not only work with words as a profession, but we also have our noses in books each day for the pure joy of reading. To wit, just the other night, I was re-reading an old trade paperback comic book (X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga) because I think it’s a great story overall, with super artwork to boot.
Anyway, at one point I came across some dialogue that is common enough in comic books because they are such a visual medium, and it reminded me of an issue that I come across all too often in my work as an editor: dialogue that doesn’t sound realistic because it’s so full of backstory and/or information dumps.
Again, in comic books I expect this to some degree because the writers have limited space with captions and word/thought balloons, but I have to admit that it still bugged me a little because it just sounded so unrealistic. When I see it in a novel I’m working on, I flag it and let the writer know that such dialogue will not ring true in a reader’s ears and will feel like a hiccup or speed bump even amidst well-written prose.
Here’s an example:
“Look,” Jack said to Conrad. “We both know why you’re here! You did that job last month in South Africa, and now you want the dead guy’s wife! You know she has the intel that you thought her husband had when you whacked him! Your employer wants her and the intel to disappear, and you’re here to make it happen! And your employer is paying a ton of money to kill yet one more person and add another notch to your belt!”
Other issues aside, let’s focus on the block of dialogue. I’m already cringing as a reader when I get to “We both know why you’re here!” Why? Because if both characters know why Conrad is there, then I know what I’m about to hear from Jack is going to be purely for my benefit as a reader, and that means it will be totally unrealistic dialogue filled with backstory and/or information.
After all, why would Jack need to relate all of this backstory and information to Conrad if he’s well aware that Conrad knows it? Yes, maybe he’s trying to buy some time and falling into the clichéd monologue, but even that is still unrealistic and a bit of an insult to readers, because we want dialogue that rings true in our minds—or at least what we imagine to sound like realistic dialogue.
I come across this issue enough that I thought it worth sharing some brief thoughts about it in this post. So please be wary of anytime you find yourself inserting backstory and/or information into dialogue when it’s only for the sake of the reader. Some clues as to when you might be falling prey to this include starting dialogue with lines such as:
- “We both know why you’re here.”
- “Sounds familiar, but refresh my memory.”
- “Let me go over where we’re at right now.”
- “Now I’d like to share the details of the plan/project/etc.”
- “I remember that time like it was yesterday.”
The bottom line with such backstory/information is that if you feel it’s absolutely necessary to the story, then work it into your tale in more subtle ways: in the running narration (if able to be done smoothly), or, preferably, in small bits and pieces along the way (whether in narration or dialogue).
Yes, sometimes this kind of backstory/info in dialogue will make sense because one character needs to share it with someone who doesn’t know it. Even then, readers shouldn’t feel bludgeoned with it, which is why it’s best to parcel it out here and there as you paint the picture of your story. And one way to test how your dialogue (and your entire story) will “sound” in the mind of the reader is to read it aloud to yourself from a printed copy.
So, when it comes to dialogue, do your best to keep it real for your readers.