Friday, May 14, 2010

Paring It Down

A few days ago you sent one of your stories to a first reader. In the process, you exposed your inner heart, laying bare your dream and, more deeply, your soul. Today, you see that your e-mail box has a new sealed envelope representing the eagerly awaited critique. So, here’s a question: What’s the worst thing your first reader might say about your story? Mine was: Dude, this almost put me to sleep. Okay, maybe it didn’t read quite like that. In fact, the critique (“This really drags.”) reflected only the dialogue in one scene and not the whole story; however, whether it was one scene or the whole shebang, the general idea came through loud enough.

Why do I consider this criticism to be the worst thing? Because once the reader cares more about their own life and their own world, rather than escaping to the one I’ve provided, then I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost their interest. I’ve lost their time. Worse yet, I might have lost their trust for any future stories.

Bad dialogue is just one way a writer can lose the reader.

During the story in question, one of the characters started talking about why he did something, going on and on with each detail. My first reader didn’t actually put a name to my error, and I didn’t have one until I watched Disney’s The Incredibles. In one scene, Bob Parr (“Mr. Incredible”) and Lucius Best (“Frozone”) are sitting in a car, reminiscing old times. Lucius is telling Bob about a villain he once battled who talked too much. “The guy starts monologuing,” Lucius says, his eyes rolling, the implied message being that if the dude was going to destroy him, then do it. Don’t talk him to death.

Monologuing. What an apt way to describe what I did in my story.

Since receiving that critique, I have learned my lesson. I pared my dialogue down, carving off the fat, slicing down to the meat and bones. In the process, I also learned a couple more things. First, my pacing increased after I removed the long soliloquies. Secondly, the cuts resulted in more realistic dialogue, and often created exchanges that some readers have described as “snappy.”

As a reader, you know when dialogue works. It keeps you engaged. You find yourself smiling and thinking, Yeah, that’s what I would have said, too. Or maybe you think, Man, I wish I could have thought that one up.

As a reader, you also know when dialogue doesn’t work. And as a critical reader, when dialogue doesn’t work, it has the potential to kill the whole novel. You might even think: Why am I reading this silly Dick-and-Jane book when I could do something more fun, like writing out the monthly checks or tackling that list of spring cleaning chores?

Put simply, when dialogue doesn’t work, you violate rule number 2 in writing, which I’m certain you’ll find carved somewhere in stone: Thou shalt not bore thy reader.

In Beyond Style, Gary Provost writes a rule that we should all post as a banner over the top of our computer monitors.

Don’t write unnecessary dialogue… Just because something can be put in dialogue doesn’t mean it should be.

Putting my own slant on it, this has multiple implications. For one thing, do not continuously write everyone’s name into the dialogue when the characters know each other.

“Hey, Billy, my man, how’s it hanging?”

Billy pumped his fist. “Yo, Joe, it is.”

Joe slapped Billy on the back and leaned in close. “Billy, we tight, right?”

“’Course we is, Joe. What gives?”

Joe looked around before he spoke again. “Billy, I needs a favor. And you’s the only one I can trust.”

That kind of dialogue doesn’t work. It’s silly they keep mentioning each other’s name. Reading something like that, a reader would expect at least one to call the other a dog, as in: “Hey, dog, how’s it hanging?” And even if the characters are strangers, unless one of them is Phil Donahue they don’t continue to mention each other’s name with every line. Of course, there are always the exceptions. Like the killer who’s slightly insecure, and he’s always calling people out by their first name in order to keep the distance, keep the superior position, and keep control.

Another thing to avoid in writing dialogue is to inject material that the two should already know. Like when two thugs are talking about how they’re going to hit the don, something they’ve been planning for months. When they start talking about it, the reader knows the writer only included that part of the dialogue as a means to provide an information dump. Again, there are exceptions. Like the nagging husband who constantly reminds his wife about something because he doesn’t trust her to do it the right way. Or do anything right, for that matter. In which case, the nagging and information dump actually tell the reader something about the characters and their relationship.

I can spend more time on what you shouldn’t do in dialogue, but I won’t. Even with all of the exceptions, the list is extensive. And it includes monologuing. Especially monologuing. While that worked for Murder She Wrote and Perry Mason, it probably won’t work in your novel or short story.

Other News:

I started walking again this morning. For two reasons. First, I need to step back into a better early-morning routine—something that gives me time to think, time to myself. Secondly, I wanted to start working on a new idea. The other day, I jotted down some notes related to a writing prompt, thinking I needed to write another short story, only to find that my ideas continued to flow and the storyline expanded in scope. As a potential for a 2010 NaNoWriMo project, I decided to give this one some time to breathe and talk to me.

I also submitted a piece of flash fiction to the latest Writer’s Digest Your Story contest. In hindsight, and especially after reading the results of the last contest, I have wondered why I even did it. As I told a friend, it must be the lure of printed publication; otherwise, there’s no excuse. So, I’ll wait the obligatory period for the un-formal rejection, and then submit my story elsewhere.

Until next time…


  1. All good points on dialog. Another problem some writers have is to make their dialog too formal. People don't talk like they are giving the Gettysburg Address in everyday conversation, but I see that a lot in stories. Yes, avoid heavy colloquialisms, but remember to make your characters talk like regular people.

    Walking is a wonderful way to spend time mulling over a story. I do that too.

    I passed on the Your Story prompt this time. Good luck!

  2. I agree, Jon. The best dialogue is the one that sounds real and not dressed up for the opera.

  3. You should never count yourself out, good luck.

    This is a great post Stephen. So tell me Stephen how far do you walk. Oh Stephen does the weather bother you when it's bad? Wonder if I can figure out how to say Stephen in this last bit of silliness...Guess not this time Stephen.

    Just joshing ya, cause I'm that way. Really a great post.

    Happy weekend

  4. LOL, Paige. Too bad you didn't throw in a Dog or a Chief or a Slick to go with your comment. Thanks for the laugh.

  5. Spot on advise about dialog and it's so easy to spot when you are reading somebody else's work. Glad you have readers who will give you an honest opinion.

    As much as you want to keep things taunt in your story, there are just times where information has to be relayed to the reader. The trick is to bring this out in the most natural way possible. Avoid at all cost the dialog where both characters know something and have a chat simply to inform the reader. And the information doesn't always have to come out through dialog; in fact that is sometimes the worst way to go about introducing it.