Monday, October 24, 2016
Sometimes when I'm editing manuscripts, and usually this happens in very good manuscripts, I run into generic dialogue. Often it comes from a villain, or a hero in a heroic moment, but really, any intense emotional moment can be prone to it.
Generic dialogue isn't bad dialogue, per se. It's just "blah" dialogue. Sometimes it sounds showy or theatrical, but doesn't feel that way because we've heard it in dozens of other stories. Things like the hero saying, "Pick on someone your own size," or "You're going to regret you ever did that!" and the villain saying things like, "Don't let them escape!" or "You'll wish you had never been born."
They're generic.They're stock. And they don't really do anything for the story.
For some of these sorts of lines, I'm left sitting back and wondering, do people actually talk like that? "Don't let them escape!" seems an awfully long way to say "Stop them!" in a moment of intensity. The more intense the moment, the fewer syllables people tend to use. "Stop them!" essentially communicates the same thing in less syllables, coinciding with the intensity of the moment. You can even do "Stop!" But "Don't let them escape!" sounds more theatrical. It's almost like I'm watching a children's cartoon.
Again, it's not that these are strictly bad lines. It's just that they are often missed opportunities to kick the dialogue into high-gear. "Pick on someone your own size"? I've heard it a thousand times. It doesn't do anything for the story. It doesn't do anything for me. But if the writer would sit down and move beyond the generic, he might actually come up with a great line that is realistic and fits the character. "Pick on someone your own size" is vanilla. Give us something else, a line that comes from that character.
Some may argue that my "Stop them!" alternative is generic. There is a difference between common-man dialogue and generic or stock dialogue. Millions of people would say "Stop them!" It's natural. That's how the common person talks. There is a problem when phrases like "Don't let them escape!" and "Pick on someone your own size" are used as common-speech, because most people don't talk like that. And yet, they've been used so much, they can't feel unique to that particular character anymore either.
Basically, what I'm getting at, is that it's usually better to leave the theatrics for the vanilla kids' cartoons, and instead look for something natural, or better yet, something new and natural that comes from your character.
If you are going to use this kind of generic, theatrical dialogue, use it intentionally and with purpose. It shouldn't be go-to filler dialogue that you just plugged in because it's what came to your mind first. If you want to illustrate the fact this character talks in generic, theatrical ways, than this kind of dialogue is not only appropriate, but a good idea. For example, in a project I'm working on, one of my characters, James, subconsciously yearns to be a hero. Unfortunately for him, in my story, that yearning can be as much of a weakness as a strength. When James has the opportunity to "be a hero," he makes a point to act heroic. That's when I might employ the old generic hero lines--because subconsciously, James wants to be that. Having him use that sort of iconic hero dialogue intentionally cements that into place. It comes naturally from his character, because that's who he wants to be.
If you want to intentionally illustrate a moment in the story as iconic in a particular way, using iconic dialogue might be completely appropriate. (Might I suggest, though, that the entire scene not be comprised of it. Just give us enough to feel it.) So generic dialogue isn't completely pointless. It can be used intentionally to good effect, if you are using it because it's generic, and not as go-to filler.
You can find more ways to take passable dialogue to fantastic dialogue in this article I wrote on it.