by Karen McCullough
Here are five questions to ask yourself when you’re editing your own dialogue:
1. Is it boring?
What’s boring? How about this:
“Hi, Helen,” Joe said. “How are you doing today?”
“I’m just fine,” Helen replied. “How are you?”
“Great. How’s your daughter?” Joe continued.
“She’s fine, too. How’s your sister?”
Are you snoozing yet?
Most authors know better than to write dialogue this hopelessly bad, but we can still slip into doing similar things when we need to reach a word count and there isn’t enough story, or during first draft phase when we need placeholder words. This is dialogue that does almost nothing. It tells us nothing about the characters (other than the fact that Helen has a daughter-big deal)–nothing about the setting, the situation, the story problem. The words are empty. Cut them in revision or change it to something that does something interesting.
2. Is it wordy?
The dialogue above certainly qualifies, but even dialogue that does a bit more can sound wordy. Most people don’t talk in complete sentences or even complete thoughts in casual conversation.
Consider this bit of dialogue:
“Did you see the xxx show last night?” Judy asked.
“I did,” Mary answered. “Wasn’t it awesome? Tom Terrific put on such a great performance.”
It’s kind of still, though not terrible, but here’s what these two girls actually said:
“Did you see xxx last night?”
“Yeah. Wasn’t it awesome? And Tom— I mean, Wow! His voice… and those moves!”
“Yeah. So hot!”
Which one sounds more realistic? Does the second one tell you anything more about the girls than the first one did?
3. Is it right for your character?
Your college professor isn’t normally going to pepper his speech with ghetto slang. He might use it in certain situations, to make a point, but it isn’t going to be his normal mode. A police officer questioning a suspect is likely to be terse and very much to the point.
But you can work interesting twists on the stereotypes to really get down to character. Most people don’t expect their hairdresser to do much but babble about generic stuff with their clients. But what if your hairdresser is putting herself through college and studying music appreciation? Her words might be different, couldn’t they?
Remember Henry Higgins singing how “a man’s way of speaking absolutely characterizes him,” in My Fair Lady? Still true today.
One of my favorite examples comes from a real-life situation of my own. A few years back we had a handyman doing some renovations to our kitchen. I remember him telling us a story about trying to find some people to do a job for him, but he couldn’t because “they’d all done left out and gone fishing.”
That’s not a phrase I’d ever use in conversation, no matter who I was talking with, but it was just exactly him.
4. Is it right for the situation?
I don’t know about you, but I adopt different speech patterns when I’m talking to my family, gabbing with close friends, giving a presentation at a conference, quaking before the auditor, or cooing to my new grandchild.
Perhaps the best-known set of examples of dialogue that’s wrong for the situation is the infamous info-dump, the long speech that often begins with some variation of “As you know, Jim…”
I can always tell when my husband is on the phone with someone in his family, one of his co-workers, or his boss. His accent and words change in each situation.
5. Is it just words?
There’s more to dialogue than just words. The old adage about actions speaking louder applies to writing as well.
John turned around, scowling, and swung a fist in her direction. “There’s no milk in the refrigerator.”
John sighed as he held up the cup of doomed-to-be-black coffee. “There’s no milk in the refrigerator.”
John shoved bottles aside, searching the shelves for something to quiet the crying child. “There’s no milk in the refrigerator.”
John’s wicked grin proclaimed his satisfaction at winning the bet. “There’s no milk in the refrigerator.”
Same exact words in all four, but the actions change the context and meaning of them in each one. Can you hear in your head the different tones of voice saying those words? What your character does before, during, and after the words of dialogue can color how we read them and deepen the experience of the scene.
Karen McCullough is the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Daphne, Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, six grandchildren (plus one on the way) and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.