Monday, March 16, 2009

Mentor Monday: Dialogue Draaaagg

In keeping with Barbara’s excellent piece last week on narrative drag, I thought I’d continue with another way a story can get bogged down: too much dialogue. For example

“Hey, Billy!”
“Hi, Tim!”
“I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Yeah, it was a last minute decision. So how’re you?”
“I’m good. How are you? Whatcha been up to?”
“Not much. You?”
“Same old, same old…”

Are you tired of this conversation yet? I got tired of writing it after the word Billy. There are reasons to have conversation in a story. Dialogue can help with character development; it can show us the relationship between characters; it can provide information that otherwise would be difficult to introduce; it can move the plot along, and provide the reader with “white space” which is restful to the eyes.

What have you learned about my story based on the above conversation? Maybe you learned that the characters are both male. They seem to know each other. They’ve encountered each other unexpectedly.

That’s about it. We have no idea where the characters are. We can’t tell how old they are although they are probably older than 10 years of age based on the word choice. (What ten-year-old kid cares what another ten-year-old has been “up to?” We have no idea if these people are friends or relatives or former co-workers. We don’t know where the story takes place. The dialogue has not moved the story at all. In fact, like the characters, we are stopped, stuck in a place that seems ephemeral and useless.

Part of the reason this particular dialogue is so pointless is that it goes on too long. Yet, it is the sort of conversation we’ve all had. When writing conversation, we want to sound authentic but unfortunately, authentic dialogue is just as boring as what I’ve written above. The problem for writers is knowing what to leave out. What if we stop the conversation at the word “decision:”

Let’s try these same four lines and try to show a meeting between estranged brothers at a family reunion? Perhaps they’d be written them like this:

“Hey, Billy!”
“I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Yeah, it was a last minute decision.”

How about former co-workers at a party:

“Hey, Billy!”
“Hi, Timmy!”
“I didn’t know you’d be here!”
“Yeah—a last minute decision!”

The different uses of punctuation, italic stressors, the elimination of certain words or addition of nicknames puts us more firmly in the moment. In the reunion example, we get a sense that the meeting is uncomfortable. In the holiday party example, we feel the delight of two old friends who’ve run into each other.

Next time, we’ll explore other ways to punch up your dialogue so that it moves your story rather than drag it.



I love the little waving guys! Oh, yeah, and your post was good, too!

The thing that bugs me about dialog is that some writers don't use attributions (eg. "George said"). That makes reading an extended dialog confusing. Even worse is when you have to stop, go back to the beginning, and try to figure out who was talking when you lost track! Bad...

Anonymous said...

Good point and one that I will address the next time.

Or the time after that...