Ciao, SEers! My first post for Story Empire was called Fiction Dialogue 101, and it was actually our site’s inaugural post… all the way back on August 31, 2016.
I thought it was time for the next class, so welcome to Fiction Dialogue 201, where the concepts are slightly more advanced, but I promise you they’re just as easy to master.
Often when we speak, we’re unprepared to complete our thoughts. So we begin our sentences with filler words or even meaningless syllables while our brain prepares a cogent argument or even a simple greeting. In person, it’s easy to tune these fillers out. But in fiction, they are beacons that stand out as crutch words, placeholders, sloppy writing, or (God forbid) padding to increase our word count. Unless you have a character who stammers or specifically uses a crutch filler as his signature phrase, these can and probably should be cut. You may think they add realism to your dialogue, but they’re really just slowing down your reader.
Solution: Just cut them. You won’t miss them.
Bob Already Knows
One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is following advice to the letter. They’re told that they shouldn’t have big info dumps as exposition and should write any info readers need as an exchange of dialogue. Then they have passages that read something like, “As you know, Bob, Carmella hates milk and refuses to drink it. So she couldn’t have been the one who spilled it on the table.”
Well, if Bob already knows, there’s no reason for that conversation to happen.
This is an example of a writer trying to follow good advice, but making another mistake in the process. No, you don’t want to have pages of exposition. But you don’t want people to tell Bob things he already knows about Carmella. Not only will it annoy Bob, it will annoy your readers.
Solution: Work the information into dialogue with characters who don’t know this information.
What’s the Point?
You’ve just crafted the best dialogue exchange of your life. The banter is fast-paced, the barbs are sharp. Both characters got in a lot of zingers, but not too many. It’s a balanced exchange. And it’s smart. You’d pat yourself on the back if you were flexible enough to do it without pulling something.
But as you read it for the fourth time (and yes, you’ve read it four times because you can’t stop smiling—it’s that good) you start to notice something. There’s no point to this exchange. It doesn’t advance the plot. The characters don’t go anywhere, they don’t discover anything. They don’t grow or change in any manner. Readers don’t learn anything about them. We don’t even learn anything about the setting. They’re literally in a room we know well, and they don’t move or interact with anything. The comedy wasn’t necessary to break up some dramatic moments. It’s the best writing of your life, and it’s totally pointless. What do you do about it?
Have you heard the phrase “kill your darlings” before? Yes, it’s usually reserved for a phrase or a sentence, but it can be applied to an entire passage. In this case, strike the entire run of dialogue. It will only confuse your reader. They may enjoy it, but it doesn’t apply to the plot and they’ll wonder why it’s there and keep thinking back on it, looking for meaning they’ll never find.
Solution: Keep the passage in a different file. You may be able to use it in a sequel or in a marketing piece. If the work really is that good, it wasn’t wasted effort and can be repurposed elsewhere.
The Loudest Words Should Be The Ones That Aren’t Said
Ask twenty writers what the most important part of fiction is and you’ll get twenty different answers. But if you ask twenty writers if subtext is an important part of fiction, you’ll get twenty affirmatives. Take this example:
That’s pretty explicit, right? Not much left to the imagination. But consider the following, with only a minor change.
So, yes, subtext does require more words and less actual dialogue than direct conversation. But it can say so much more if you give it a chance. And the indirect implications are a lot more powerful than the blatant words, anyway.
Solution: Use subtext rather than direct dialogue to relay overt messages.
There you have it. Fiction Dialogue 201. Master these principles and you all get an A+. Do you have a favorite technique that you use in your work? Let’s talk about it below.