I love the Writing Excuses podcast. It’s my favorite companion while folding laundry.
On a recent episode, the topic was stilted dialogue. One mistake that’s hard to avoid in dialogue is having the characters saying things to each other that they already would know about. Authors try to reveal needed information and want to avoid the dreaded info dump, so they put it in dialogue. But often this doesn’t sound natural.
“As you know, I’ve been your foster mother for five years now,” Mary said.
“Yes, but before that, you’ll recall I lived on the streets,” John replied.
Even without the “as you know” or “you’ll recall” this dialogue is dumb because both characters know this information and wouldn’t say it to each other, no matter how much the author needs the reader to know the info. In the olden days, stage plays sometimes had such dialogue between a maid and butler–often enough that this sort of thing has the nickname “Maid and Butler Dialogue.”
In the podcast, Brandon Sanderson described using an argument between characters as a way to get around this problem.
“Good grief, after living here for five years, you still can’t seem to remember when curfew is. You’re grounded!” Mary said.
John frowned. “There ain’t no curfew on the streets. I lived there long enough to know.”
Not a great example, but you get the idea.
Next time you find yourself maid-and-butlering, try turning it into an argument.