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Dialogue

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I’ve written a lot about dialogue (start here and here). Now I want to introduce the idea of keeping a scene going and picking the right time to interrupt the flow. What’s the best time to insert information, description, dialogue tags, or action?

If your answer is, “Uhhhh, whenever I think of it?” then congratulations, you’re like most writers. But just because you think of inserting something into a scene at a certain moment doesn’t mean that’s the best moment.

We’ve all had the experience, I think, of reading a manuscript (our own or a critique partner’s) and getting involved in a scene. Great! We’ve all also gone with the writer on a tangent when they interrupt the scene to insert some kind of block of text, right? Then the scene restarts with a rejoinder or response–”I completely agree with you,” she said–and…wait a minute! What were they talking about? You scroll up madly to reconnect the conversational thread.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: scene is about the dialogue. It’s not about the dialogue tags. It’s not about the actions or gestures that accompany the speech. It’s not about the description of the cafeteria around the characters who are speaking, unless it just so happens to break out in a food fight and interrupt them. It’s about what’s being said. Or at least it should be.

Whenever you interrupt the flow of dialogue, you best have a good reason. This is not the time for big blocks of text that derail the reader’s attention and train of thought. This is not the time to establish part of the setting (which you should’ve done as we were entering the location) or reinforce a character’s personal appearance (which you should’ve done when we were meeting them the first or second time). When we hunker down for a scene, think of it as an express train that makesvery selective stops. It should stop for things that are important to the plot, first and foremost. If that food fight is going to happen in the middle of the scene, then, yeah, by all means stop the dialogue. If the mean girl comes to harass everyone, then include it.

But there’s a time and place for all sorts of other distracting information, and in the middle of a scene usually isn’t it. By being selective and figuring out the right time to drop information on your reader, you are gaining control over your prose. The more writers practice, the more organized they become. They realize that there’s a natural ebb and flow to good writing and that it’s perfectly fine, desirable even, to be strategic in handling where and how you introduce different character and plot elements. For now, you should be vigilant about not disrupting a piece of dialogue’s train of thought. That’s an easy fix and it helps instill good writing habits.

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Dialogue Spacing

I’ve been doing some critiques recently and wanted to remind writers about a few basic dialogue pointers. The most important note that I’ve been giving is that you need to put every piece of dialogue and/or action that belong to the same character in the same paragraph. If a character is speaking only, that’s one paragraph. If the character is acting and not speaking, that’s one paragraph. If a character is both speaking and talking in one moment, that’s one paragraph.

You break for narration, if there is a narrator, and description, or to switch characters.

This seems like a no-brainer to some of you, but I just gave this note about five times in a row and it seems like there are people out there for whom this isn’t second nature.

Also, to go along with this note: You don’t need a tag for every piece of dialogue if there are only two people in a scene. If you follow the above tip, your readers will be able to follow who’s talking. You should only go heavy on the dialogue tags if there are three or more people in a scene, because things could get hairy there.

To learn more about dialogue tags, click here. Finally, another dialogue post. You can never be too careful or judicious with your dialogue tags. This is one thing that could either support your scenes beautiful or be completely distracting.

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Don’t get me wrong, when my friends and I do it, I find sitting around and talking fascinating. But I don’t like too much of it in my fiction. You may have heard several writing teachers saying that kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms, airplanes, and cars are especially dangerous settings in fiction. Why? Because they limit action to one of very few things. Mainly, people in these settings tend to…sit around and talk.

Talking in fiction SHOULD accomplish many things. Good dialogue reveals character objective and motivation, characterizes our fictional people and deepens our understanding of them, and it pits them against one another, creating conflict. In the hands of lesser scribes, though, lots of dialogue tends to be one giant info-dump. The writer has realized that their reader doesn’t have all the information necessary to continue the story, so they play catch-up and rationalize to themselves that, just because there are quotation marks around it, it’s not an info-dump or blatant backstory.

“Well, as you know, son, your mother was very ill last year and, at that time, she left you a box of belongings. I know you have been longing to get in there, but…”

Blah blah blah. And I’m putting the manuscript down.

Writing great dialogue is a whole other blog post (or ten). But for this brief reminder, take the following to heart: Dialogue is not a dumping ground for backstory. Scenes where people are sitting around and talking are a minefield for the pacing and action stopping cold. If you have a lot of these scenes, break them up with action in between. If you have an entire plot that is based on an environment conducive to sitting around and talking (the course of the story takes place on an overnight flight to London), I don’t envy you. Find a way to break up the constant conversation with action (think Snakes on a Plane).

Think about it like this: there’s talk, and then there’s action. That’s an old and familiar adage. We tend to want to see action, not just hear talk about it or promises or apologies. Same for your fiction. Find a way to inject action and things actually happening in any plot, but especially one that might be set primarily in a static environment.

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It’s the old adage you hear in every writing class, workshop, critique group and probably on some things you’ve had edited, rejected or submitted in your lifetime. “Show, don’t tell,” says the editor or agent or well-meaning crit partner. “You know, this really is an issue of showing versus telling,” says the writing teacher. Well, we all know that showing is good and telling is bad. But do we really know what that means?

I’ll use this discussion of showing v. telling to bridge the Revision-o-Rama posts from the more physical, plot, character and dialogue aspects of revision to the finer writing points, like description, theme, imagery and voice (yes, voice!) that are coming up for the end of the month. I also want to be able to point people to this post forever, because showing v. telling really is an evergreen writing topic that comes up for a lot of people at a lot of times. But that’s the problem. I feel that the common rhetoric is too general. Here’s what it means and, more importantly, why it’s important.

Let me give you an illustrative example of showing v. telling. I’m not saying this is the end-all and be-all, or even that well-written, but I’m hoping you’ll see the difference. Here’s telling:

Katie was so hungry she could eat a horse. She bellied up to the diner counter, her stomach rumbling. If she didn’t eat now, she’d die. It felt like an empty pit had opened up inside her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.

Karl, working behind the counter, looked at the newcomer with disdain. He really hated people who came up and bossed him around, even if they were supposed to always be right. He procrastinated as much as possible with restocking the silverware caddy. Then he wasted some more time wiping down the counter. Finally, he came over to the girl who he didn’t like very much. “Would you like fries with that?” he asked, ironically, a fake smile on his face.

Now let’s try showing on for size:

Katie ran up to the counter and gripped the edge hard. It felt like a pit had opened up inside her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.

Karl barely registered her from behind the counter. Screw “the customer is always right,” he thought, glancing at Benny, the fat manager. He opened the dishwasher and pulled steaming hot forks out one by one. Then he noticed a coffee stain on the counter that had to be rubbed twice, three times, four. The new girl wove in her seat like she was about to pass out. Victory. Finally, he met her eyes. “Would you like fries with that?”

What do you notice? In the first one, the characters’ emotions are very obvious. Why? The narrator tells you all about them. We know Katie is hungry and we know Karl really isn’t digging the bossy way she ordered a burger. That’s fine. It works. It gets the information across, right? (In a very redundant way, mind you!)

What about in the second example. Did we still get that same information? Now what about it is different, then? There are a few things. First, we were able to get “hungry” without anybody saying the word. The rush on Katie’s part to get to the counter combined with a little bit of interiority about what she’s feeling and then matched to her shouting out an order. We’re pretty sure she’s hungry or, at the very least, that something urgent is going on.

We get more into Karl’s head here. We get his tension with the manager and his attitude about a common customer service adage right away. He won’t even look at the customer. Instead, he busies himself with painstakingly removing forks “one by one” or the tally of how many times he wipes the counter. These drag out the scene without once using the word “procrastination.” We also get more of Katie’s hunger from his perspective, and how it makes Karl feel. That way, his rehashed “Would you like fries with that?” still comes across ironically, though, this time, it’s because we know what’s been going on in his head much more intimately.

This brings me to why showing v. telling is so crucial, why so many writing teachers and agents and editors and crit partners harp on it: there are many kinds of knowing. One kind of knowing, you get by reading facts in the newspaper. You are a passive recipient of information. Another kind of knowing, the kind you practice every day in your life, is the detective work kind. You have to do some reasoning, some sleuthing, you have to actively pay attention to what’s going on around you — what the world is showing you — in order to figure people out, judge a situation, make your own assumptions and decisions about things.

This is the exact kind of “knowing” that you’re interested in giving your reader. By showing them a scene, showing them what’s going on in a person’s head, giving them information but embedding it below the surface, you’re inviting your reader to put their thinking cap on, to dive into your story and go deeper. The reader had to work in the second example to figure out what’s going on with both Katie and Karl. Guess what? That made them feel like they knew the characters better, it made them more engaged in the story and it gave them a sense of ownership of these people and their scene. Since the reader did some work to figure out what was going on, they now feel included, emotionally invested. Cool, right? And every author should pick creating that experience for their reader over just telling them stuff with every sentence they write.

Showing v. telling with a person’s inner state and thoughts in third or first person narration is one small exception to the rule. I know some of you will ask why I still chose to tell the reader “It felt like a pit had opened up inside her” in the second example, too. There are some times when you can show too much. If you’re always saying “she punched the wall” or “she spat on the ground,” for example, instead of occasionally just saying what the character feels inside, it can get overwhelming. You don’t have to say “angry” outright, but you can simply tell the reader what’s going on with narration instead of action or gesture. Sometimes that’s easier and more direct. It all depends on where you want the focus of each moment to go. And it is a balance. Play around with it. Now that you know why showing v. telling is so crucial in your writing, you should really, at least in the beginning, err very much on the side of showing.

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I feel like you’re all pretty thoroughly sick of me by the midpoint of Revision-o-Rama, and rightfully so. I’ve been blabbing my mouth off for quite some time. So instead of bloviating about dialogue, I’ll let writers who actually write excellent dialogue do it for me! (I’ll also compile a link or two from what I’ve previously written on the subject… anything new I try to write will start to feel redundant and, as we all know, redundancy is one big thing to get rid of during revision!)

Without further ado, I present some excellent thoughts on dialogue!

A lot of tips on writing dialogue can still apply as tips on revising dialogue. If anyone has great posts from other blogs that I’m missing (and there are a lot, I’d wager), leave them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list so that this can become a resource for the future.

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Here are some very simple benchmarks for when to cut something out of your manuscript. If you are agonizing over revisions and trying to decide whether to keep a paragraph, scene, phrase, character, line of dialogue, etc., run it through this checklist.

(Hint: if people are telling you that your pacing is slowing down or if a scene is running long and boring to re-read during revisions… Pay attention!)

You should probably cut it from your manuscript if:

  1. It does not advance our understanding of the character. Does this piece of writing show us something new about or a deeper layer of your character? Everything you write serves a purpose (and no, that purpose is not to boost your word count). If nothing new is revealed as a result of this being in the manuscript, cut it. If no new nuance emerges, give it the axe.
  2. It is just so darn clever. Find the part you love so much because it is witty. Cut it. That’s you showing off as a writer and I’m willing to bet that it does not advance our understanding of the character (see above) or advance the plot and tension (see below).
  3. It does not advance plot or raise tension. Every piece of fiction needs plot and tension to keep the reader going. Some things have very little happen in them but they’re readable. That’s okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. “Readability” is not what we’re striving for, though. So make sure you are turning out plot points and upping the tension with every scene you write.
  4. It does not reveal anything new. In terms of plot, or backstory, or foreshadowing or our immersion in the world of the book. If something doesn’t give us more meat to chew on, it’s just fat and gristle.

This is a very reductive view of revision. But honestly? I’ve been reading some manuscripts this week where I’ve wondered long and hard: Why is this in here? Whether it’s been a particular bon mot that the writer couldn’t cut (KILL YOUR BABIES!) or a scene where the same wrinkle in a friendship dynamic is replayed over and over (“I just need to know I can trust you, man!”/”You can trust me, broseph!” for like five scenes straight…), I have developed a wicked itchy delete button finger.

And what happens after you trim all the unnecessary fat from your manuscript?

What’s that?

You’ve freed up some room in your word count and it gives you anxiety?

Go forth and fill it with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! Because if what you’re writing isn’t any of that–if it is just taking up space in your manuscript–then those are dead words anyway. It’s better if you cut them when you see them, as they’re placeholders for something more awesome.

Trust me. Now go: chop, chop, chop.

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Dialogue tags are like clauses. If the actual line of dialogue is the meat of the sentence, these little guys hang somewhere around or within it and add information. When I’m reading manuscripts, I always note some dialogue tag issues. Here are some of the most common, so you can play along at home and edit them out of your revision.

1) Dialogue/Tag Redundancy

This is a big issue, as anything redundant in your manuscript sticks out like a big old zit in a prom photo. Go back through your manuscript and see if you’re saying anything twice in a single line… once in your dialogue, another time in your tag. Hint: this is where most of your ickiest adverbs will be. Examples:

“I’m so angry, I could spit!” she growled, nearly snorting fire from her flared nostrils.

Alex’s hands flew to blot at his crimson cheeks. “I am so embarrassed!”

“Oh yeah? What’s it to you?” she said, testily.

These are technically not bad writing. But they are redundant. In the examples above, the action or adverb basically echo what is conveyed in dialogue. If we separated those tags from the dialogue and used either the description or the dialogue alone, we would still convey the same emotions. Be careful not to repeat yourself (like I just did).

2) Choreography

Writing a novel sometimes feels like doing blocking for a play or directing actors in a movie. You have these characters in your head and they’re moving around the place you’ve imagined for them. In real life, we take pauses in our speech, we fiddle with our keys, we put a tea saucer down then pick it back up again (if we’re classy enough to drink it out of fine china). You want to make sure your reader gets what these characters are physically doing in space, right? You want them to see your characters like they see actors in a movie. Sure, but when you do it too much, it really drags your dialogue down. Here’s an example of one short, continuous snippet that starts to read like choreography (sorry, indentation and blogging do not go together):

“I don’t know, I mean, he’s got to come out of there sometime,” Suzie said, ripping a bite out of her turkey sandwich with her perfectly white teeth.
“I gueff,” Chris said, his mouth full of burrito. He swallowed it down. “I guess.”
Suzie chased her bite with a sip of Diet Coke from her dewy wax cup. “It’s the third time this week Biff’s shoved him in that locker.”
Chris reached into his pocket and checked the time on his phone. “It’s been about an hour already.”
Suzie arched an eyebrow. “What if he runs out of air?”
“Impossible, there are at least a dozen vents.” Chris put his phone away and folded his hands in his lap.
Suzie pushed her chair away from the table, leaving her sandwich nearly whole on its red checkered wrapper. “But you know he has asthma!”

What’s going on in this scene? What are the characters saying? Do we even really care? I don’t. I couldn’t keep track of the dialogue because there was so much business in between. The only actions we really needed, I suppose, are Chris taking out his phone to check the time and Suzie pushing herself away from the table. The rest could be trimmed back significantly.

3) Adverbitis

This one needs no introduction or explanation. For the last time, folks, let’s lay it all out there: adverbs are like corn dogs. You think they’re a really good idea, then you eat a couple and you realize they’re much better in moderation. Don’t cut all adverbs out of your manuscript, but prune… aggressively. They don’t add much — only in special circumstances do they work — and they are usually a sign of a writer not trusting their reader.

Dialogue conveys things. That’s the whole point of it. It tells us who a character is, how they talk, what they think, what they say aloud vs. what they keep inside, what people are planning to do, what people did, how people feel about things, etc. etc. etc. Good dialogue is very information-dense without hitting you over the head. If it is well-written, the reader learns new things without even realizing. Adverbs and the other kinds of tagging errors I’ve discussed here just get in the way of good dialogue and make it too… obvious. That’s not what you should be aiming for. If you’re seeing a lot of adverbs, it’s time to really examine your dialogue and make sure you’re conveying what you need to in the actual scene and not leaning on adverbs as a crutch.

Recap: How to Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Some things to remember about writing good dialogue:

  1. Make sure your tags aren’t redundant.
  2. Let the dialogue speak for itself and don’t rely on adverbs or choreography.
  3. This is advice for writing good anything: trust your reader.
  4. Make your dialogue information-dense but not obvious.
  5. Bonus: don’t play the name game!

“Now take this to heart and prosper!” she said, triumphantly, her fingers clacking on the keys of her MacBook as she wished her readers well. (Ba-dum bum ching! See what I did there?)

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I was reading a manuscript the other week in which the characters relied on each other’s names too much in dialogue. That is, believe it or not, a common problem, as is this other, slightly related one: characters who know each other well giving us background information in dialogue… producing language that real, breathing humans would never say!

Here’s an example:

“My darling husband Danny, can you please pass the mashed potatoes?” the wife asked.
“Why, of course, my dear Laurie. How was your day as board member of the Greensboro Museum Society?”
“Just lovely. After I shuttled the kids, Jake and Emily, off to preschool and first grade, I went right over there.”
“Just what I like to hear, Laurie, darling.”
“Now, Danny, just what are you going to do about your problems down in the engineering department of the power company? Your boss has been making you livid for weeks!”

Okay. So, obviously an exaggeration. But here’s are two quick tips:

  1. Never use dialogue to introduce large swaths of character details that don’t belong in a scene between two people.
  2. Don’t over-rely on names, especially in a scene with only two characters. Real people don’t talk like that. Try and remember the last time you said your best friend’s or your significant others’ name to them in casual conversation.

I’ll be writing up some thoughts on dialogue tagging very soon. For me, endless name-dropping is a sign that the writer doesn’t trust their reader to follow the dialogue. That fear may be founded — if the author is doing crazy things like putting two indented lines of dialogue from the same character one right after the other — but in 95% of cases, your reader is following you. They know who’s talking.

I’ve said it once, twice, and I’m sure I’ll say it a zillion more times: trust your reader.

The only times I use more names than usual is when there are multiple characters in a scene and I get tired of dialogue tags. You can’t rely on dialogue tags alone. My current WIP has a section where five characters go on an adventure. To tell you the truth, orchestrating this many people in one scene makes me want to crawl back into bed. It’s the only time I’ll let the occasional name slip into dialogue.

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