Jul 29 2008
This article will help you write tight and effective dialogue, courtesy of Shut Up, He Explained.
1) Please cut out as many undramatic questions as possible. Hopefully your dialogues don’t read anything like this…
“Would you like to see the murder-weapon, Detective?”
“It is over here, sir.”
“On that shelf?”
This conversation is plodding and painfully undramatic. First, it wastes time discussing two boring details: the detective’s objective and the precise location of the weapon. The readers probably already know the first item and the second item is hardly important enough to warrant three lines. If I were rewriting this, I would start the conversation by having the detective declare that he wants to examine the weapon. Then Dan would finish the conversation by saying that it’s on the shelf. That would bring this conversation to an acceptable two lines. However, since the audience probably already knows what the detective wants, we may be able to cut it to a single line (Dan saying where the weapon is). It’s not quite as smooth, but readers will probably be smart enough to figure it out.
As a rule of thumb, questions tend to bore readers when A) the questioner and questionee enjoy a wholly cooperative relationship and/or B) the information is already known to the readers and characters involved. If either of the above conditions is true, it’s probably best to shorten the conversation to the minimum length required to tell readers what’s going on. Another option is making the relationship between the questioner and the questionee more complex and conflicted. Conflict makes the search for information more entertaining and it also gives the author a better opportunity to develop the protagonist’s mettle.
2) Don’t spend too much time handling greetings and niceties. In fiction, it is rarely worthwhile to write in niceties like “hello, how are you doing?” Cut the fluff. What are they really there to talk about? Paring back your greetings to “hello” or something similarly short will help readers keep going.
3) Keep your conversations moving forward. One writing guide recommends that authors develop conversations by avoiding direct responses from one character to another. For example, let’s say the first line of dialogue is “The ship’s wheel isn’t turning.” An indirect response would be something like “Let’s pump the forward tanks,” as opposed to something like “Yeah, I know what you mean.” The indirect response provides momentum and will help you avoid situations where characters muse idly.