What Happens Here?

Every once in a while, I stumble upon a dead scene. One where, technically, nothing happens. It usually involves either an author who is brimming with information or really loves writing witty banter.

In two manuscripts I’ve read recently, I’ve encountered dead scenes. These dead scenes occurred for two completely different reasons. For one, the author felt compelled to outline the bulk of a fantasy world in the form of a more-experienced person filling a newbie in. The second MS, the author had established some good tension and a compelling plot with potential danger, then spent about 40 or 50 pages writing: witty banter at a family dinner, a witty scene at the best friend’s house, witty banter at another family dinner, witty banter at the coffee house, witty banter by the lockers at school.

Are you getting my drift? What do the two above mss. have in common? What’s that? Did you say “lot’s o’ blabbing”? Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!

When you find large places in your MS with nothing but dialogue, you’re most likely in trouble. *cue wails of distress, cries of “but my MS is different!”* That very well might be, but editors and agents are looking for story, they’re looking for plot. In most cases, even a literary, character-driven masterpiece will only be half the package.

I’ve never met a publishing professional who wouldn’t also want to know: “What happens next?”

Authors usually either write long conversation scenes to serve as a) an info-dump (about a world, a situation, a threat, a character, etc.), or b) to bask in their own wit/wordplay/writing.

Both of these pose huge revision problems. Huge. Make-you-want-to-eat-a-sheet-of-tiramisu-from-Costco huge (I know from experience… I can still taste the powdered chocolate dusting my tear-stained cheeks). The first author wails: “But how else do I introduce all that information??? It’s the crux of my story!!!”

The answer is: you layer it. Introduce one thing. Then add another layer to it. Add some backstory in another conversation. Better yet, make your explanation triggered by something. Your characters find something and it starts a story. Or something happens and a character explains something. Instead of having a conversation triggered by your urge to world-build and spill the framework of your concept, have it be triggered by action. And don’t give it to us all at once. Put the pieces together as they arise naturally through plot.

The second writer will balk at this advice: “But this is hilarious. It’s so fun to read!” Sure, you wrote some funny stuff. And I’ll probably enjoy reading it. But most writers can’t keep a book in suspended plot animation for long before a reader gets antsy. If you want to showcase your wit, punctuate it with action. Have a witty moment discussing something that happened. De-stress after a long day of ACTION by hanging out with your BFF and bantering. Don’t let the witty banter be the entire book, though. That’s the grave mistake.

As you can see, the answer to both situations is action. Something happening. Plot. Every scene and every chapter must not only develop character and story and world, they must also move the plot forward. Another reason to avoid long dialogue scenes without plot is that dialogue leads toward telling, not showing.

Are you worried about this? Good. If you’re the fantasy writer in my examples, start with the chapters you loathe re-reading the most. The ones dense with info you already know, the ones you tend to skim in revisions. That’s where your problem lies. If you’re the second writer, start with the chapters you love the most. The ones that make you feel the most satisfied. The ones where you’re showing off. My guess is that they’re the witty banter ones.

Neither is easy. But when you’re revising, ask yourself about every scene, every chapter: “What happens here?”

Honesty is important. If your honest answer is: “Two characters walk into a room, sit down at the table and talk,” that’s trouble.

Obvious Telling in Dialogue

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.

The Importance of Reading for Writers

I cringe when I think back on a conversation I had a few summers ago with an executive editor from a very large publishing house. I was at this conference as a writer, before I entered the industry from the business end, and blathering about a manuscript I was working on, a YA about a girl whose sister died.

As one of the only children’s writers at the conference, I definitely had a lot of this editor’s time. On this particular occasion, I used my limelight to open my big mouth and blab something along the lines of the following:

There are so many books out there like THE CLIQUE, ya know? All fluff and no substance! What I really wanna do is, like, write a book that’s deeper than that. One about real emotions and stuff. There’s nothing like that out these days.

Ha! Haha! Hahahahahahaha! Excuse me while I choke on my coffee. Boy howdy was I ever young and ignorant.

I think the word I was groping for is: “literary.” And, if you’ve been in a bookstore lately, you know that it’s impossible to turn around without bumping into a highly literary, emotionally charged YA book or two thousand. Death, drugs, divorce, heartbreak, YA has it all.

Now that I’ve been on the other side of the table and reading slush, I’ve seen ignorant statements like mine repeated by many authors. “There are like, totally no books about (insert totally common and well-represented theme or topic here).”

That’s called not reading enough. There are so many books out there that it’s impossible to read even a thousandth of one percent of your way through the shelves at a bookstore. More of them come out every day. While the average adult has abysmal reading habits, a writer has no excuse.

The work published by others is our only textbook when we’re honing our craft. Ideally, writers in any genre should read as much as they can, inside their genre and outside. In kidlit, writers shouldn’t just stick to fantasy or historical or literary, or even their age group, for that matter, but experience all the wonderful offerings on the shelves.

There are those writers who think their work will be corrupted by reading while they write. That makes little sense to me. More often than not, it’s these kinds of writers who convince themselves that there’s never been a YA book about a main character grieving over her dead sister. I guess I can understand this attitude if you’re reaching for something experimental with your manuscript, but not if you have commercial aspirations, like a lot of writers do. I can say for certain that my writing has improved immeasurably since I started reading more.

Instead of feeling intimidated and viewing already published work in your genre as “competition,” view it as a learning exercise. Read, make note of what other authors are doing. If you spot things than could’ve worked better in a story, boy howdy, you’ve got material for your own manuscript! It will make you look even savvier if you can query an agent or editor and mention some “comp titles,” or works in the same vein as yours. Because all editors and agents know that a book like yours exists out there, somewhere. No idea or book is absolutely, completely unique. And that’s a good thing! Even better, if previous books like yours have has sold well, that’s great news for you and your project.

So read a lot, read widely and read well. You’ll pick up new ideas, realize things about your own writing and feel like you belong in a community. And unless your novel concept is way, way, way, way out there, like zombies in the world of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE*, for example, keep your mouth shut in front of executive editors until you know what the real market for work like yours looks like.

* Just kidding! Someone already did that. Introducing PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.