The Two Most Useless Lines of Dialogue in All Literature

by James Scott Bell

The subtitle of my book on dialogue is The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. The converse, of course, is that dialogue can sink a book pretty darn fast, too. Sodden, cliché-ridden talk is like cement shoes on a mafia stoolie. Many a book has been found at the bottom of the East River because the dialogue dragged it down.

Before I get to the two most useless lines in literature, I have a runner-up. This couplet has been used so often it crossed over into the cliché zone around 1986:

“This isn’t about ____. It’s about ___.”

Now, you may have written such an exchange yourself, so I want to make something clear. I bear you no malice or derision. If you feel the absolute need to have a character say such a thing, I shall not throw a flag. I will, however, issue a warning. Clichés flatten the reading experience. Instead of delight, which is what you want to produce, the reader feels cheated. That feeling is usually subconscious, but why even flirt with that?

And by all means do not flirt with, entertain, or otherwise consider the two most useless lines in all literature:

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I have never read this exchange (or seen it in a movie) except as a shorthand from the author demanding that I care about these people! They love each other, see? You now must love them, too, so that when tragedy befalls them you’ll really, REALLY care, because these are wonderful people who are in love, okay?

Only the effect is the opposite. It comes off as manipulation. It does nothing to make me believe the characters actually do love each other. Words are easy. You need to show me that they do. An action is aces for this, but an original line of dialogue counts as showing me, too.

Now, let’s nuance this a bit. While 98% of the time you don’t need the words “I love you,” there might be a few exceptions. Perhaps a man recovering from a traumatic brain injury, who finally opens his mouth to speak after months of silence, sees his wife at the bedside and utters, “I love you.”

Yeah, might work, though I think you could do better by thinking up some line of dialogue that was meaningful to them both early in the book, as in, “Let’s have chocolate croissants.” I dunno, you’re a writer, make something up. It’s more work than that easy-peasy “I love you,” but work that is worth it to a reader.

This cliché was demolished years ago in a commercial for a certain beer:

Or you can freshen the cliché by putting a spin on it, as Woody Allen does in Annie Hall:

ANNIE: Do you love me?

ALVY: Love is too weak a word for what—I lurve you. You know, I loave you. I luff you, with two F’s. Yes, I have to invent… of course I do. Don’t you think I do?

But for “I love you” followed by “I love you, too,” I cannot think of any exception. Find something else, anything else. The movie Ghost (1980) did it this way:

SAM: I love you, Molly. I’ve always loved you.

MOLLY: Ditto.

That word, Ditto, is not a throwaway, as it becomes a key clue later in the movie.

As I said, readers are cliché resistant. When they see one, it shoots past them without landing, without leaving any mark except a speed bump of dullness. The essence of dullness is predictability. Conversely, when you ditch a cliché for something original, it’s gladdens the reader’s heart.

UPDATE: I just remembered there’s a nuance here also. In my Romeo books, there are a couple of occasions when Mike’s friend and mentor, Ira, says something snarky yet insightful to him, and Mike replies, “I love you, too.” There it has an ironic twist. It’s also outside of the romantic love context which this post is primarily about.

So next time you’re tempted to have a character say “I love you,” and especially “I love you, too,” I want the words of Eliza Doolittle—as portrayed by the great Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady—pounding in your brain:

Three Easy Ways to Strengthen A Scene

by James Scott Bell

Scenes are the bricks that build the fiction house. The better the bricks, the better the house. You don’t want bricks that easily crumble or aren’t fitted properly.

Now, sing with me the song of the novel:

It’s a brick houuuuse
It’s mighty mighty, makin’ the readers shout


So what is a scene? It’s a unit of action. It involves a viewpoint character who has a scene objective. If there is no objective, the scene is flat and crumbly. The objective must be met with obstacles, which create conflict. If there are no obstacles, the scene is boring. Finally, there is an outcome, which must push the reader on to the next scene.

For today’s lesson, let’s take it as a given that you’ve constructed a scene with these elements. It’s a solid brick, doing its work. I want to suggest three easy ways to strengthen that brick.

  1. Enter later

Suppose a scene begins this way:

The next morning I showered, shaved, and put on my best suit. I was going to show Mr. Bullard not only that I could be prompt, but also that I looked every bit the hot young salesman on the way up.

Too bad traffic didn’t cooperate with me. The 405 was absolutely jammed. Which made me ten minutes late.

When I walked into Bullard’s office, the first thing out of his mouth was, “You’re late.”

“Sorry, Mr. Bullard, but the traffic was—”

“I don’t care about the traffic. You were told 8:30. It was your business to be here.”

“If I may—”

“The only sound I want to hear is you cleaning out your desk.”

Okay, there’s nothing technically wrong with how this scene opens. It sets the whole thing up. And you may decided to leave it that way for pacing purposes. But consider entering the scene this way:

“You’re late,” Bullard said.

“Sorry, Mr. Bullard, but the traffic on the 405 was—”

“I don’t care about the traffic. You were told 8:30. It was your business to be here.”

“If I may—”

“The only sound I want to hear is you cleaning out your desk.”

I slinked out of his office, feeling ridiculous in my best suit. So I was going to show him a hot young salesman, huh? What a joke.

Notice that some of the exposition from the first example is filled in by way of dialogue. That’s always the better choice, so long as you place the info in the midst of a tense exchange.

Tip: Look at the opening of every scene in your book and see if you can start a bit later. Most of the time you can without losing anything.

  1. Exit earlier

Most writers, I expect, write a scene to “closure.” They want to end it as if it were a complete unit. Something like this:

The last thing I put in the box was the framed picture of Molly and me.

“So you got the ax.”

I looked up. It was Jennifer, the accounts manager.

“Yep,” I said.

“No worries,” she said. “You’ll land on your feet.”

And then she was gone.

I finished filling up the box. Taking one last look around my office—my former office—I made my way to the elevators. Five minutes later I was out on the street.

The last paragraph makes the scene feel like a completed unit. So what’s wrong with that? Subconsciously, the reader takes a breath, relaxes just a bit. If that’s your intent, fine. But consider creating more page-turning momentum this way:

The last thing I put in the box was the framed picture of Molly and me.

“So you got the ax.”

I looked up. It was Jennifer, the accounts manager.

“Yep,” I said.

“No worries,” she said. “You’ll land on your feet.”

And then she was gone.

Wait, what? What happened after she left? The reader needs to know! So the page is turned and you take the reader to the next scene, right in the middle of the action (see tip #1).

“Double Jameson’s,” I said. “Neat.”

The lunch crowd hadn’t arrived yet. The bar area in Morton’s was cool and dark.

“Tough morning?” the bartender said.

Tip: Look at all your scene endings and see if a little trim doesn’t give you added momentum. I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

  1. Surprise us

I have a little sticky note that says SUES: Something Unexpected in Every Scene. If you think about it, what is it that makes reading dull? It’s when the reader anticipates what’s coming next…and then it does!

So surprise them. Sometimes that means we change the scene outcome to provide a major shock or twist. But we can’t do that every time without giving the reader whiplash. What you can do is find some way to create surprise within the scene itself. Again, this is easy to do.

Tip: Simply look at the scene and ask yourself what the reader might be expecting with each beat. Then give them something different. Try:

  • Flipping a character stereotype.
  • Adding a fresher description.
  • Using side-step dialogue.

Just a bit more on that last one, which is one of my favorites. From my book How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, I use this example:

“Let’s go to the store, Al.”

“Okay, Bill, that’s a fine idea.”

That’s called “on the nose” dialogue. And while you need some of it, for that is how we communicate in real life, doing the “side step” is an easy way to surprise the reader.

“Let’s go to the store, Al.”

“Your wife called me yesterday.”


“Let’s go to the store, Al.”

“Why don’t you shut your fat face?”

In sum, these are three easy ways to strengthen any scene. The ROI is tremendous, and you’ll end up with a solid brick houuuuuse.


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