Dialogue: Getting to the Point

couple talking
Dialogue captures the essence of conversation.

With NaNoWriMo coming to a close, it’s time to start thinking about editing your first draft. Here are some tips to help make your dialogue sing.

Use boring dialogue tags

Many beginning writers look for alternatives to said, such as stated, exclaimed, averred, or expounded. The problem is, these alternatives draw attention to themselves and away from the dialogue. Generally, it’s best to stick with asked and said. They’re invisible, so they don’t sound repetitive to the reader. That doesn’t mean that you can’t occasionally use words like whispered or interjected where relevant. But be judicious.

Replace tags with action

If you include action in a paragraph of dialogue, you can eliminate the tag altogether. For instance, the word said in the following sentence is unnecessary:

“I wonder what’s keeping him,” Jennifer said, checking her watch.

This could be rewritten as the following:

Jennifer checked her watch. “I wonder what’s keeping him.”

The second version is shorter and more direct.

Avoid pleasantries

In real life, pleasantries are the lubricant of social interaction. In fiction, phrases like “how do you do” and “thank you” are wasted words. They don’t convey meaning to the reader. Enter the conversation after the pleasantries have been dispensed with, when the conflict is about to begin.

Don’t use dialogue when narration can do the job

When you’re drafting a scene, it may play out in your head like a movie or a TV show. You see all the action, hear all the words. And so you write down all the words you hear:

Yvonne looked around the diner. “Where should we sit?”

Henry tapped his foot. “How about that table over there?”

“Too close to the kitchen. Maybe the booth in the corner?”

“Works for me,” Henry said.

During the editing process, ask yourself if any of this matters. Does it tell the reader anything about the characters? Perhaps. Yvonne seems rather particular about things, while Henry seems generally agreeable. But these tidbits of character development can be handled in a more interesting manner elsewhere. Delete the dialogue, and replace it with narration:

Yvonne and Henry sat in a corner booth.

Eliminate “as-you-know-Bob” dialogue

Avoid using dialogue for exposition if all parties involved already know the story. For example, here’s a conversation between two brothers, Bob and Carl:

“I got a call from Aunt Peg,” Carl said. “Stevie’s getting out next month.”

“You mean our cousin Stevie?” Bob asked. “I haven’t seen him in eight years. Not since he was thirteen, and he was sent away for killing that girl.”

“Yeah, Mama didn’t want us to have anything to do with him after that.”

“And nobody with any sense disobeys Mama.”

This would sound more genuine if the exposition occurred inside Bob’s head:

“I got a call from Aunt Peg,” Carl said. “Stevie’s getting out next month.”

Bob gripped his bottle of beer a little tighter. It had been eight years since he’d seen or spoken to their cousin Stevie. Not since Stevie was thirteen, and he was sent away for killing that girl.  Mama hadn’t wanted Bob or Carl to have anything to do with Stevie after that. And nobody with any sense disobeyed Mama.

However, dialogue can be used for exposition effectively if one of the characters doesn’t know the history:

Julia flipped the potato pancakes, and they sizzled in the  cast iron pan. “There’s a voice mail message from your Aunt Peg. Something about your cousin Stevie.”

Bob gripped his bottle of beer a little tighter.

“I don’t remember Stevie,” Julia said. “Was he at the wedding?”

“Stevie’s in the care of the state of Mississippi.” Bob tried to keep his tone light. He’d always meant to tell Julia about Stevie, but it was hard to talk about, and it wasn’t the sort of thing that came up in conversation. “Stevie got sent away when he was thirteen. He killed a girl. I always thought it was an accident, but…”

Bob looked away to avoid the shock in Julia’s eyes. He could only imagine how disappointed she was in him, keeping something so important from her. She surprised him by wrapping her arms around him.

“Oh, honey,” she said. “That must have been awful for you.”

Remember, dialogue isn’t a word-for-word transcription of conversation. It’s conversation distilled. Cut the small talk, and get to the point.

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