Meredith Efken is the owner of the Fiction Fix-It Shop, exclusively serving writers of adult and YA fiction. A multi-published novelist as well as freelance editor and writing coach, she is passionate about great stories and about empowering other writers to reach their full potential. Actively pursuing that desire, she started Fiction Fix-It Shop in 2006 where she has helped many fiction writers achieve their personal and professional goals. Her clients include award-winning Christian fiction authors such as Deborah Raney and Randall Ingermanson. She is also a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers as well as Word Sowers Christian Writers – a local group she has cofounded. Meredith currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband, Jason and 2 lively daughters.
The Trusty Stand-In : Part II
Part II: Down and Dirty of Dialogue
Say it, don’t spray it...
If you joined me last month, you know that Meredith is writing on deadline (Lucky Baby is due spring 2010 from Howard/Simon & Schuster), that I am not on deadline and crowing it to the world—neener neener!—and that Meredith and I both like cheese.
So here I am again, your trusty stand-in, bringing you part two of the Down and Dirty of Dialogue.
Having asserted that 1) we need to write like people really talk, 2) dialogue, not being real speech, should exclude some of the real foibles of spoken conversation, and 3) even dialects need to be legible, I give you:
4. Cut anything that does not move the story forward.
The motions of everyday life are exactly that: every day. You would not write “I unlocked the front door and closed it behind me, dropped the keys on the counter and turned on the lights” unless these actions had unusual or special significance—i.e., it’s a very tense night because a killer is on the loose, who is, in fact, about to jump out from the closet. Instead, you would summarize the action with something like “after I got home.”
In the same way, we don’t need to know the everyday conventions of a conversation.
“Okay,” I said. “Talk to you later.”
Yuk. Instead, give us the meat of the conversation and then go on with the action.
5. Say it, don’t spray it.
It’s distracting when characters exult, whine, growl, and do anything that ends in “-ly” (she said sardonically). Conversely, there’s nothing wrong or too boring with saying “said.” In fact, nothing is wrong with skipping these notations—called attribution tags—altogether. Try it: Remove all the tags from your dialogue. Does the tone of each character’s voice convey itself? Do we know if they’re shouting or impatient or cajoling already? Strong dialogue gives us those clues on its own. Not always, but much of the time. Help your reader focus on the dialogue—not the tags attached to it. That said…
6. Provide clues to the action.
Beats are a great way to tell us what’s going on. A character is vehemently denying something, but beneath the table he’s nervously shredding his paper napkin. Show us. Someone’s lying? Can you convey it without adding “she lied”? Readers are clever. They’ll get it.
7. Let the rhythm of the dialogue follow the scene’s flow of action.
Two guys fishing in a boat are probably not going to have the rapid-fire dialogue like that of a couple in a heated argument.
Hank cast again, sat back with a sigh, and reached for a cookie. “It’s a fine day, isn’t it? A fine, fine day.”
“You always deny everything.”
Break up the dialogue where appropriate. Keep it flowing when needed. Time enough to add character reflection later. Always maintain tension.
8. Don’t dump.
It’s just not polite. Information, history, back story . . . whatever it is, use it sparingly. Tease it out in morsels. Don’t dump. Dialogue is the time where the reader’s eye slides smoothly across the page. Information dumps are like speed bumps, slowing the eye and disengaging the reader. The other problem with dumping is that it’s no longer the character speaking—it’s you. And no offense, but we don’t want to hear from you. We love (or hate) these figments of your imagination. Let us have our suspended reality. Find a better way to portray the information—the bare necessities—that you need to.
“I need a cool conclusion,” I say, iPhone tilted against my cheek. The click click of Meredith’s Dvorak keyboard sounds in the background.
“How about going back to the conversation between you and I?” Click click click.
“The one where your eyes look like cartoon spirals?”
She laughs. “Yeah.” Click click.
I kick back in my desk chair. “Where we’re eating cheese in my kitchen?”
“Yup.” Click click click.
“The one where I go, ‘Neener neener! I have no deadlines’ ?” I laugh. “Woohoo! ‘Neener neener!’”
Tosca Lee is the author of Havah: The Story of Eve (NavPress 2008) and the 2008 Christy finalist and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year silver award winner, Demon: A Memoir. She doesn’t really taunt friends on deadline. She’s too busy giddily catching up on Fringe episodes.
Join the fiction Fixit Shop next month—as author and Fiction Fixit editor Susan Meissner, our guest columnist, shares her take on fiction foibles and necessary fix-its.