People Don’t Listen: 7 Dialogue Tropes to Give Them Away

people don't listen dialogue tropes ear plugs

“la la la la I’m not listening!”

People don’t listen. You know it. I know it. We’ve probably even heard it but didn’t realize because we weren’t listening. And since we’re so familiar with people who don’t listen, using that idea in our stories adds a lot of realism. That makes these 7 dialogue tropes really handy for giving them away. So handy, in fact, that I’m sure you’ll recognize them from books, movies, etc.

7 Signs for When People Don’t Listen

These signs or tropes are really reflections of why the people aren’t listening. It’s a sign of their motivation and relationship with the person who’s talking. And how much they care about the subject. Ergo, which one you use is all about characterization, setting, and plot.*

 1. The Clueless Question

A.K.A. “Sorry. What?” Best said with that vague, re-focusing air.

Stereotypical of husbands tuning out their wives, this technique is used when the person in question was unaware that someone was talking to them because they’re

  1. in a crowd when the question could’ve been directed to someone else,
  2. focused on something really intently (to the exclusion of other sounds and their surroundings), or
  3. really tired (it’s easy to tune out when you’re exhausted).

Granted, wives do the same thing. Husbands and teenagers just have a worse rap.

2. The Circular Credit

Used in every comedy ever, this trope occurs when a duo is plotting, especially if a dominant character has already been established. The situation goes something like this –

Strong Character: What should we do? Hmmm… What about – no.
Weak Character: We could always try Plan A.
Strong Character: No, that would never work. … I know! We’ll try Plan A! Genius!
Weak Character: [mutters] I’m so glad you thought of it.

Examples include everything from Once Upon a Mattress to Inside Out, etc.

3. The Talk-over Takeover

This one comes up when a person isn’t listening because he or she won’t stop talking. It could be from arrogance, nerves, or a garrulous nature.

Here are some situations where this might be familiar:

  • The talkative, nosy type who can’t resist “fixing” someone and telling someone what to do or what he/she is going to do to help that person (you know – those favors you don’t want?). Aaand doesn’t stop talking long enough for that person to really object. In fact, it’s the type who interrupts any objection and assumes what the poor “helped” soul was going to say…
  • The arrogant, narcissistic type who interrupts because whatever you’re saying can’t possibly be as important as what he/she is saying, so stop wasting time blathering and let him/her talk. (Grrr.)
  • The nervous date or job interview who talks so much that everyone else eventually gives up on getting a word in.
  • The focused person so intent on telling a story or talking about a favorite topic that he/she doesn’t realize the surrounding conversation has moved on (and left him/her behind – still talking).

So… great for annoying, enraging, or funny characters!

4. The Deceptive Dismissal

Here’s where a show of politeness mixes with a lack of caring. People do this all the time when they want to appear that they care about what the person is saying but actually don’t. It’s a two-step process:

  1. Start with a sympathetic phrase. A.K.A. a platitude: “I know what you mean.” “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” “How awful.” All said with a kind of tsk or a sigh.
  2. Segue into what you want to talk about. Generally, it’s something about you (“You” meaning whoever’s doing it. I know that you would never do such a thing.).
  3. Pretend that what you’re talking about is related to what the other person says. People who do this might even believe it’s related – after all, they weren’t listening!

Don’t have characters you want the reader to like do this unless there’s some excuse. Like being distracted by something really important. And they’d better apologize when called out on it.

5. The Fuzzy Faker

This person actually does care about what the other person thinks. Maybe, not enough to actually pay attention (for this moment) but enough to try to hide that he/she wasn’t paying attention. Inevitably, however, vital details get crossed or overlooked and out the person’s lack of listening skills.

This dialogue trope is useful for

  • employees trying to impress/pacify a boss who’s especially boring and tends to monologue
  • spouses who want to avoid getting in trouble for not listening
  • students caught not paying attention in class

Sounds familiar, right?

6. The Redundant Reveal

To me, this one is an everyday kind of accidental slip that busy people make. You’re doing something, you’re moving fast, and you end up saying something before your brain catches up with what you heard. You know, when the brain assumes someone is going to say one thing and responds before you realize, nope, that’s not it (like a variation of the talk-over takeover but on a smaller scale).

Here’s an example from one of my favorite websites, Not Always Right.

(My mom is offering my little brother a snack, but she’s in the other room and he doesn’t quite hear her.)

Mom: Do you want any popcorn?
Brother: No, just popcorn.

How many times have you said, “You’re welcome,” when the other person said, “Have a nice day.” It’s that kind of brain glitch. Also known as autopilot.

7. The Taciturn Tune-out

So… back to conceit (Conceit and not listening go well together, yeah?).

In this situation, one person is giving instructions, and the other person is ignoring every word. Usually, it’s a case of arrogantly assuming that he/she knows better and doesn’t need to listen. This person may not even bother to respond or says, “Yes,” “right,” and “uh-huh,” at appropriate intervals.

Unfortunately, this is extremely common with customers and business. Businesses will pay lots of money for consultants, It departments, trainers, etc. And do people listen? Sometimes. Sometimes, they just do their own thing, break stuff, and then blame someone else. (Read not always right if you don’t believe me.)

Even thinking about it is frustrating.

Of course, that’s the point. Frustrating, funny, enraging – when people don’t listen, it causes an emotional response. I’m sure you have stories you could share for all of these dialogue tropes.

So why don’t you? Change the characters and put them in your stories. Believe me, your readers will empathize.

*Something about the word, “ergo,” feels pretentious. But it fit the sentence. I’m so conflicted…

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Who Talks Like That? Book Nerds

A while ago, I talked about how people don’t really talk the way characters do in books. It’s true – mostly. One major exception is people without a lot of experience talking in the real world. People who learned their speech patterns from reading instead of actual social interaction. So if you read something and think, “Who talks like that?” The answer is book nerds. A.K.A. people like me.

So if you’re trying to establish characterization through dialogue for a scholarly-type, you may actually want the character to talk the way people do in books. Here’s a few traits to keep in mind:

  • Proper grammar: It is I. To whom am I speaking? 
  • An extensive vocabulary: I was being facetious. Can we mitigate that?
  • Out-dated words/slang/sayings/politeness: My apologies. Do tell. That’s the bees knees! Would that it were. Huzzah!
  • Jargon (from whatever genre): Oooh, nice alliteration! He did 5 pirouettes, but his spotting was all over the place. Toss it with the dead men.

And, as usual, that list isn’t universal. Depending on the reading habits, a person could pick up some unusual speaking habits but not others. If the person reads a lot of British writing, for example, he or she might start using British slang, speech patterns, or even spellings (I’ve been spelling “color” as “colour” ever since I read The Hobbit as a kid.). Someone who reads books set in the bayou might say things like “cher,” and someone who reads a lot of Shakespeare might say things like “forsooth.” So there’s plenty of room to adjust for what your character’s really into.

People can also lose these habits as they socialize more.

Ever notice how you pick up speech habits from people around you? (I’ve recently realized that I’ve started to use “dude” too much when I’m talking, and I know exactly which friend to blame that on.) If the character makes friends who follow trends, that character is going to end up learning more up-to-date sayings and slang. If the character makes friends who are into medieval history, the vocabulary is going to change in an entirely different way. And that’s not even including the special slang and inside jokes used within a group.

Another interesting fact to consider is that people can also revert to old learned behaviors.

New habits aren’t as powerful as old ones – they’re not as ingrained. And when people are uncomfortable with a situation, they tend to go back to whatever feels most natural or safe to them. That’s usually the way of talking they’ve done the longest. What they learned first. That means that if your character is a book nerd turned social butterfly, her conversation might change drastically when she gets flustered. Or he (whatever).

Lots of books have characters who speak with a stronger accent, change languages, or start speaking scientifically when they’re nervous. It’s a common human trait.

Personally, I tend to go in and out of a lot of different speech patterns (and dialects) depending on where I am, what I’m talking about, and who’s around me. That might be a writer thing (or a theatre thing). After all, the downside to studying dialogue is that all the options get lodged in your head, and you never know which one is going to come out. Honestly, I think most people do that do a lesser degree, but it can be very interesting to write a character who is aware of that.

Imagine that you’re writing a 1st-person narrative, and the main character started out as a book nerd but has since learned to talk more normally. Wouldn’t the way the character thinks be more like the way he/she first learned to talk? And wouldn’t the dialogue require a kind of translation?

That could be really interesting. It has a lot of potential for humor, too – I’m picturing the character thinking something ridiculous like “Oh, no! I befouled the air,” and then making fun of himself for not simply thinking, “I farted.”

I’m probably too amused by these things, but, hey, I’m a logophile with a love of drama, dialogues, and dialect (and alliteration). It’s what I do. I think it’s what most writers do. I guess that means our books could influence the speech patterns of a whole new generation of book nerds.

Uh-oh.

3 Words So Commonly Used Incorrectly That Most People Just Don’t Care

Sadly, there are far more than three. You know it. I know it. Let us remove our hats, bow our heads, and have a moment of silence for all the poor words so commonly used incorrectly.

Ok. Moment of silence over.

I picked these three words because they’ve been misused so much that the false definition is commonly accepted as correct, and most people will react strangely if you use them correctly (and think you’re stupidly zealous if you correct them…).

 1. Literally

This word means that something actually happened or could happen. It means that the words it was applied to were factually true. Sadly, many people use it paired with an exaggeration. “It took literally twelve hours to travel 1 mile.” No, no, it didn’t. And if it did, you should’ve gotten out of the car and walked.

Sadly, I think it’s probable that actual grammarians started this through the use of sarcasm and irony, but as Oscar Wilde warned us, the irony was wasted.

 2. Nauseous

People say that they feel nauseous when they’re sick to their stomach, queasy, or liable to vomit. What they’re actually saying is that they feel disgusting enough to make someone else throw up. How, we don’t know (I’ve heard of colors that nauseous, but not usually people – and nauseous people aren’t usually that self-aware).

If someone feels sick, he or she should say, “I feel nauseated,” instead; however, they don’t. The wrong usage has become so common that it’s disgusting.

 3. Hopefully

“Hopefully, we won’t have any trouble making our connection.” We hear this, and we know the person means that he or she hopes that they won’t have any trouble with the connecting flight (or train, I suppose). It actually means 2 things: 1. they won’t have any trouble with the connection, and 2. they’re going to make their connection in a hopeful manner – maybe, they’ll smile and spout positive idioms at people all the time like some modern-day Pollyanna. Or perhaps they’ll keep their hands clasped in front of them and make a strong display of faith.

You know what, the way we use the word is actually really confusing and hard to picture. Instead of trying to figure out how to do things in a hopeful manner, just replace “Hopefully,” with “I hope.”

Of course, if you’re writing dialogue, you’ll probably want to use these words incorrectly to make it sound more like real dialogue – unless the character is strict about grammar. That character would probably use them right. Then, you could even have a conversation between the characters about correct usage.

Just think! You could educate a generation of readers about the right way to use a word! The only problem is… which one do you pick?

With Dialect, What Words You Say Are as Important as How You Say Them

One reason that some authors say not to write in dialect at all is that syntax and word choice can be used to suggest a dialect, region, or first language without modifying the words whatsoever. For example, in the U.S., specific kinds of pronoun errors are common to more rural areas (also often poorer areas with worse education though not always).

“I got them books,” “They gave it to her and I,” “Clay and me bought two,” etc.

Alternately, putting words in the wrong order is a common way to suggest that English isn’t a character’s first language. Sentence structure can vary greatly from language to language, and small order errors can be telling. With ESL, it’s very common to drop articles and prepositions or to put adjectives in the wrong place (See “The 10 Most Common ESL Mistakes” by Scribendi). Another useful mistake is using the wrong synonym for a word with multiple meanings (“I tried to novel a room at the hotel”) or for more extreme examples, completely reordering the sentence: an example of this Yoda’s speech patterns are.

Actually, Yoda’s speech patterns are more similar to the syntax of languages like Japanese where the verb usually comes last (after the subject and object, which can vary in order). For Russian speakers, on the other hand, it is more common for books and movies to change the syntax to verb-object-subject-verb (“Knows this, everyone does.”). I don’t know much about Russian, so I can’t say how close that is to the Russian language – but it has become the usual dialect tactic.

Of course, if you know a language well, you can better adjust the errors that a character raised on that language might make when speaking English (by following the rules of the first language instead). Otherwise, researching the linguistics might be slower and more painful than paying attention to what kind of syntax and word choice other authors and screenwriters use to suggest that accent or origin.

But wait – there’s more.

Besides errors, you can also use slang, jargon, idioms, and colloquialisms to give an impression of dialect as well as general characterization. The use of “lass” implies Scotland while “cher” is more New Orleans, “sugar” is general South, and so on. Whether a character calls part of the car a “fender” or a “bumper” tells more than we realize. While it’s easy to think of that as more characterization, that type of characterization strongly influences how we read dialogue.

Try imagining “as useful as a milk pail under a bull” in an upperclass British dialect. Now, try to hear “Bob’s your uncle” in a strong Appalachian accent. It’s kind of hard to do, isn’t it? (And yet hilarious).

Since each phrase is strongly associated with a specific accent (because the phrase itself is more likely to be heard in a specific region), you don’t need to modify the words at all to bring that accent to mind. The reader automatically assumes those words are read in that accent.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use the other method. In fact, errors and word choice can work very well with word modification to communicate a dialect without becoming overly complicated or confusing. And with the added characterization, it’s a win-win situation. If you want to show, not tell when it comes to character background and dialect, a character’s word choice is one of the best tools you have.

Is Word Repetition Good Or Bad?

In middle school and high school, we’re taught that word repetition is bad, that we shouldn’t use the same word over and over again in the same piece if we can help it: it gets old/annoying, and it gives the impression that we have severely limited vocabularies.

Later on, however, we’re sometimes told that it’s better to use the same word repeatedly. With dialogue, some novel-writing professors recommend using “said” with each comment instead of replacing it with synonyms (exclaimed, wondered aloud, whispered, responded, etc.). Word repetition is also an emotional appeal strategy for speeches (and sales) because people remember and respond to things they hear multiple times.

So which way is right?

Like most questions about writing style, the answer is, “It depends.” If you’re writing for school, it’s not a very good idea to use the same word constantly (especially in an essay).

If you’re writing dialogue that you want to keep moving at a fast pace, using mostly “said” can help do that because “he said” and “she said” more or less fade into the background. They don’t take much time or attention for the readers, so they can skim through and focus on the dialogue. On the other hand, since some writers use a different synonym for every line spoken in the conversation without disrupting the pace, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. You might rely on “said” for one scene and mix in a bunch of synonyms for another.

Repeating a word can also provide emphasis (you’ll see that a lot with poetry), and it really is good for sales. Think about commercials and how they re-use specific words to make sure that those words stick in your memories. The trick to this method, however, is that you have to make sure other words aren’t repeating the same way. Otherwise, the repetition loses its punch.

In the end, it comes down to personal taste and the effect you’re trying to achieve. As Shakespeare said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” You may need to repeat the same word every time. You may need to mix it up with synonyms. You may need to do both at the same time for different ideas. And the decision may change drastically by what you’re trying to do.

I know that’s not extremely helpful (sorry, folks), but that’s the way it is. Word repetition can be an error for you to watch for, or it can be a technique to use to your advantage. Or both. At the same time. In other words, don’t do it except when you should.

Sounds like the rest of English, doesn’t it?

A Grammar-related T-shirt That Is All Too True

I'm silently correcting your grammar. t-shirt

Of course, people online wouldn’t be able to see the shirt, but I still want it.

I do this automatically. At least, I’ve learned to do it silently (usually). On the other hand, I might be focusing on your speaking style so that I can use it when writing dialogue… but that’s too long to put on a t-shirt.

The Drama of Dialogue

When it comes to dramas, it’s all about dialogue. Seriously. The script of the play is a long series of conversations. That’s it. So if you’re not good at writing dialogue, then you have a choice: don’t write plays, or get better at writing dialogue.*

If you want to get better at writing dialogue, I wish I could tell you that there’s a quick and easy solution. There isn’t – especially for plays.

Even beyond making dialogue sound realistic, building characterization through it, adding to the plot, or helping the pacing, a play’s dialogue has to add all the vital information you’d normally put in the non-spoken text. At the very least, it has to contain all the details that you decide have to be in the story (see “The Drama of Playwriting” for more on that).

So how do you learn to put all that in the dialogue without screwing up everything else the dialogue is already doing?

My best recommendation is a 3-step process:

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Characterization Through Dialogue

If you’re having trouble with characterization, you might want to check the dialogue. Even though real people don’t talk like book characters, dialogue is one of the fastest and most reliable ways to communicate what a character is like and where a character is from without going into a lot of detail. And the most important part of using dialogue for characterization is phrasing and word choice.

Do you say “sofa” or “couch”? Do you say “pop,” “soda,” or “coke”?

People from different areas use different words for the same objects. If your character’s supposed to be from California, having him/her say “pop” for a carbonated beverage is going to raise some questions in readers who know that “soda” is more common in California.

The same is true for idioms/colloquialisms (sayings). A person from an upper class New England family is unlikely to say, “He’s busier than a one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest.” If the character does, you’ve automatically thrown a curve ball into the story and have to explain that this character is not your typical rich kid from New England.

Ok. Use the right slang and sayings. That’s it, right?

Nope. In addition to region and class, word choice also varies by character. As a rule, men tend to speak more confidently or aggressively while women are more likely to try to soften their speech with words and phrases like, “if that’s ok,” “probably,” “seems,” etc. Of course, that’s a generalization, and this will definitely vary by culture and subculture. It will even vary from character to character within a culture.

But that’s the point. It should vary by character. Whatever the character is like – bold, hesitant, quiet, chatty, whatever – it should show in the dialogue.

That’s why messing up the dialogue can totally change the characterization. Using the wrong slang, the wrong saying, or the wrong words – any one of these can give an impression that you didn’t mean to give. Or it could fail to establish a character quirk that you wanted to highlight. Or undermine facts you’ve already laid out.

Characterization and dialogue go hand in hand (or foot in mouth, depending). If something’s wrong with one, it’s time to check the other.

Banter Bonus: 6 Memorable Conversations

No matter what you’re writing, banter in dialogue can be a fun, lighthearted and endearing parts of the piece. It’s what we remember and quote from movies. It’s the moments of books that we reread over and over again. It’s the scenes in plays that have the audience rolling in the aisles.

If you’re not familiar with the term, banter is a playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks. It can be a mutual exchange between a group or even one person replying cleverly to someone who is being serious. Here are some famous examples to give you an idea of what banter can sound like – although you’re probably already familiar with many of these. After all, the more banter there is, the more good quotes get passed around.

1. The Princess Bride

An oldie but a goodie, The Princess Bride shows light-hearted banter between enemies Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and the Man in Black (Cary Elwes) as they swordfight across a rocky cliffside.

BanterPrincessBride

2. Ocean’s Eleven

From the 2001 film, Ocean’s Eleven, there were so many options it was hard to pick. Here’s one scene between Rusty (Brad Pitt) and Danny (George Clooney). The casual, offhanded delivery of humorous lines is a major part of this movie.

BanterOceans11

3. Firefly

Joss Whedon’s Firefly is chock full of witty conversation. This particular moment involves Captain Malcom Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres) as they continue a dangerous (yet potentially personally fulfilling) mission.

BanterFirefly

4. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the banter between the characters (especially Harry, Ron, and Hermione) helps to show the reader their friendly relationship.

BanterHarryPotter

5. The Hobbit

To show one-sided banter, here is a conversation from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien between Gandalf and Thorin.

BanterHobbit

6. Much Ado About Nothing

Last but not least, William Shakespeare’s plays would be five-second commercials if all the clever banter were removed (even the tragedies would be significantly lighter). Even in serious moments, the characters play with double meaning or make jokes. This short conversation from Much Ado About Nothing is a good example. No wonder that play is renown for its wit!

BanterMuchAdo

I could add examples forever (Pride and PrejudiceIndependence DayThe King’s Speech, Disney movies, and so on), but I think this gives you a good idea. If anyone has a particular good conversation (from a book, play, movie, etc), please share!

You Mean Real People Don’t Talk the Way I Learned to from Books?

As writers, we always want our dialogue to sound real. We don’t want it to be stiff or awkward (unless the character is) because we want our characters to sound like people, not robots.

The problem with writing the way people talk is that people don’t talk in sentences, and they don’t use correct grammar (if you use correct grammar when you talk, you’ll get made fun of, believe me). When you leave out too much grammar or don’t write in sentences, the dialogue can get pretty confusing. So you don’t want to write dialogue exactly the way people talk, or the reader may not be able to understand.

There are two basic schools of thought on this. One is to keep the grammar mostly correct and use full sentences but add in contractions and slang to keep the dialogue from sounding too formal. The other attitude writes as closely to real speech as possible without getting confusing. Writers in this school often use a couple of specific punctuation techniques:

  1. Showing that a person is interrupted with a dash. Put the dash right after the word that is interrupted. If the same person continues the same statement after the interruption, start that part with a dash, as well.Interruption
  2. Showing a pause or hesitation with an ellipse. When you use an ellipse, you don’t necessarily have to finish the thought the person was on when they paused. You can start a new idea afterward. People often pause to change their wording or take a new direction with what they were saying.Pause
  3. Showing dialect using apostrophes and misspelling. With dialect, people try to write how the person speaks (what the pronunciation sounds like).c'n

You can play around with combinations of these to try to make your dialogue more similar to how people talk. My only caution is not to go so far that it’s hard to understand. It doesn’t have to be real so long as it feels real. If it doesn’t feel stilted and fake, that’s probably real enough.