50 Shades of Dialogue

50 Shades of Dialogue

Have I plugged these brilliant reviews of the Fifty Shades trilogy, yet?  Katrina Passick Lumsden lays out exactly what is wrong with the characterization of Christina and Ana, the disturbing gender politics of these books, the ludicrous plot points. Plus, she refers to Christian’s junk as a “bologna wand.”

Anywho, I’m not reviewing these books, I’m coming at them from a pure craft perspective. And this week I’ve got a biggie.

Let’s talk about dialogue.

Have you ever thought about how ridiculous real life conversations sound? If the NSA is listening to my husband and me, they probably think we’re crazy. It’s all inside jokes, quotes from our 3-year-old niece, Simpsons references, songs about our dog and/or each other, and run on sentences.

Our jobs as writers is to simulate human conversation, not replicate. Dialogue needs to be snappy, witty, important, structured, accessible, and interesting. Flirting in romantic comedies is fun and sexy, but awkward and painful at the local bar. Quentin Tarantino writes amazing, gorgeous monologues for his characters that would be insufferable coming from a real person.

E.L. James is not Tarantino. However, dialogue isn’t the weakest part of Fifty Shades. Everything Christian Grey says makes me want to punch him in the bologna wand, but, that’s what happens when you write an unlikable character. He’ll say unlikable things.

That said, here are some things to keep in mind when writing dialogue.

Read it out loud.

My first semester in UNO’s Writer’s Workshop program, I had to take a class about performing fiction. Essentially, an acting class for introverted fiction and poetry writers. It was miserable. But, totally necessary. Not only as writers do we need to know how to sell our writing, we need to get in the habit of reading it out loud, so we can avoid this mess:

Between each kiss he murmurs, “I. Want. You. So. Much. I. Want. To. Be. Inside. You. You. Are. Mine.”

Oh my™ does that look silly. Now read it out loud. Sounds like a robot. Or a child having a tantrum. This may work in a movie, where we actually see him kissing her between each word.  But not in print.

Less is more.

This next one might fall into my character voice lesson, but it’s worth bringing up again when you have dialogue this clunky.

“Christian, I just capitulated to your petulant demands. That’s all.”

Or, she could talk like a human and say, “I just gave in to you.” Remember, even though these are fictional characters, they’re supposed to feel real. I’m almost 30 and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “capitulated” in casual conversation. Definitely not a 22-year-old dingbat like Anastasia Steele.

Keep it moving.

Every word on the page is supposed to move the story forward. Doesn’t matter if it’s dialogue or description, you keep that train rolling. None of this:

“Good morning, Ana,” she says sweetly.

“Morning,” I smile broadly at her. I am Ana again!



“Anything to eat?”

“Please. I’d like an omelet this morning.”

“With mushrooms and spinach?”

“And cheese.”

“Coming up.”

“Where’s Christian?”

“Mr. Grey’s in his study.”

First of all, E.L. James totally ripped off Tommy Wiseau.

Second, the whole point of Ana talking to Mrs. Jones is to find Christian. Why did we need to know Ana’s omelet order? I think Mrs. Jones delivers the omelet, but by then Ana has no appetite. So, the whole exchange is pointless filler in a 300+ page book.

Beware catchphrases.

Unless you’re on a Bravo reality show or a ‘90s sitcom, you probably don’t have a catchphrase. E.L. James may not have meant for Christian to have one, but he totally has one! He says this eleven times:

“Fair point well made, Miss Steele.”

Classic Christian! Though, not quite TGIF worthy.

Easy on the exclamations.

Fifty Shades is a sex book, so there are lots of mid-coitus exclamations. Most are just names, which, I get it, Ana, you’re having sex with Christian. Some are downright hilarious, like when Christian takes Ana’s virginity:

“Aargh!” I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity.

Hilarious and unnecessary! Ana straight up tells us it hurts, no need for the exclamation. Still, I really hope this scene is intact (unlike Ana!) in the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Redundant dialogue is redundant.

These books are from Ana’s POV, so I’ve spent more time in her mind than is healthy for my mind. More than a few times, Ana will think something and then say it out loud.

Holy crap. I lean back and gaze at him. Art. He wants to buy art. How can I buy art?

“What?” he asks.

“I know nothing about art, Christian.”

Yup. Ana is clueless about art (among other things). We don’t need her to think it and say it. One or the other.

There are so many more tips for writing dialogue. Literally thousands of books and blogs from people far more knowledgeable than I am. Just remember, no matter how poorly you write dialogue, you’ll never be Sex Pirate bad.