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Bad Dialogue: Case Study 1

I will never review a bad book on my site, because there is enough negativity in the world, and to be frank, I know how hard it is to write a book and still have it be terrible. I will however fully admit I read bad books. Some of them I like, some of them feel like a hawk raking at my brain with claws.

Today I would like to point out some bad dialogue from books, to see what we can learn from it, and why it is bad. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. (Author) Everything else here is verbatim from a book that is published by a major publishing house, not self-published.

I am picking up at the moment the conversation starts, so that we lose no information.


“What do you want?”

Jordan turned to the borderguard who addressed him. He was young and looked at him as though he would steal everything he owned. “Looking for Captain Grinch,” Jordan said ignoring the boy’s rudeness. The entire city was on edge before the inexplicable massacre in the Circle, now, everyone was downright paranoid.

“Who’s asking?”

“Morgot,” Jordan said, using the name the captain had addressed him in the letter. “Tell him Morgot is looking for him.”

“Just Morgot?”

Jordan frowned. “Just Morgot.”

Half an hour later the young man returned, his demeanor markedly different.

The boy bowed. “Come with me, sir…”

 Okay, so let’s take a moment to talk about why this is not working. Again, nothing comes before it, this is the start of the conversation. Jordan has something he wants. He wants to see the captain. That’s a good thing, we know in conversations people should want something. To convey information, gain a thing, change a mind, learn something. Here we have a clear “I want to see…” In the conversation we also know we need something to stand in the way. Standing in the way means conflict, and that is where this fails for me.

The kid is a wet sheet.

If that was how the character was supposed to be portrayed as wishy washy and easy to get past that is something different, instead we have a non-conflict which takes half a page through which we learn nothing.

Specific issues are here too. “Ignoring the boy’s rudeness…” made no sense. The boy wasn’t rude. Not that we saw. Looking him over is technically his job, and we are given insufficient detail to know how he looked him over. No help there.

The back and forth with the name is not adding information to the scene. It is just a repetition of his false name over and over again. No tension is added, no action beats are there to tell us if tension is rising.

We are told the boys demeanor is markedly different but we never really saw one before.

The scene ultimately adds nothing and moves nothing forward.

Does every scene need to be an interaction masterpiece? Of course, not. Sometimes it just needs to be a brief hello to get by a door guard, but the level of repetition here, and the feeling the author desired this to be more than it was, stuck with me. If the interaction is that inconsequential, you can skip it.

“Jordan was stalled for a moment by a perplexed door guard when he passed off his pseudonym, but was led in short order to the captain… or some such can skip the boring repetition, which didn’t teach us anything.”

That’s a quicker 39 words compared to the original 103.

It is important in reading and writing that you study dialogue you don’t like as much as you study dialogue that you do. Next week we will be back with more excellent dialogue as counterpoint to this week’s disappointment.

Now go write some dialogue! Because writers write.

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