"Is This Meaningful Dialogue?" She Asked.

Last year I wrote a post on fixing minor writing problems called Band-Aids that should be employed during the revision process. I thought of that post recently because I’ve noticed that too many manuscripts I’ve requested in the past few months were rejected for very “Band-Aid-like” reasons, which unfortunately means the writing wasn’t quite good *enough*. (Never an easy rejection to write.)

One issue, however, stood out in particular and I realized it’s not one I covered in my original post: Dialogue.

Dialogue is a tough thing to write, and it’s even harder to write well. Like with the other Band-Aids, I can’t promise a quick fix will solve any larger problems an agent or editor may have with your work. What I can do is make you aware of the most common pitfalls I see when it comes to writing dialogue.

1. Too realistic.
I mean, we all use modifiers before we speak usually. And we don’t always use proper grammar and we begin sentences with conjunctions and we can run on and on and on because, um, we just do, OK? Sometimes we don’t know what to say next, so… we use ellipses to visualize our lack of certainty or add the words “um” and “like,” but um… this is, like, super annoying to read and usually the Very Important Thing your character is trying to say ends up getting buried in the very real way he or she is speaking. So, ya know, cut it out maybe?

As annoying as that was to read, it’s actually how most people – not just teenagers – speak. We all do it. Let’s not pretend otherwise. We all have our bad speaking habits that are hard to break. When writing dialogue, we’re given an opportunity most of us don’t get in real life – we can edit out those bad habits. Using slang, dialect, and other “realistic” speech patterns is all well and good, but be careful not to let it take over the narrative. Readers need to be able to hear what your characters are saying. If they’re well-drawn enough, you won’t need to rely as much on creating realistic dialogue to make them seem real. Don’t delete every “gonna” or “kinda,” but use them sparingly.

Remember that these characters aren’t speaking to us out loud. Our brain has a tendency to demand cleaner language when reading words on the page. We’re more forgiving in person because we can’t physically see the inaccuracies or “um”-like filler. Sometimes being “real” is the same as being “distracting.”

2. Too unrealistic.
This is what I’ll call the Wayne’s World Scenario (watch this clip to see why). For example, lines like:

“I don’t know, Dave, what do you think?”
“My maternal grandmother, Rose, lived in this house since 1927.”
“I haven’t spoken to Chris since he cheated on me with Lindsey. I hope it’s not awkward when we work together on that school project.”

Assuming the above sentences were spoken to someone the character knows, it feels strange that the other person would need so many irrelevant details. The problem with the first example is that most people don’t say the name of the person they’re speaking to unless they want to emphasize something or get their attention. The next two examples are victims of info-dumping. If we, as the reader, need to know specific dates, character relationships, or back-story between characters, it should come out throughout the narrative in a more organic way. Relying on dialogue to convey these types of details feels forced and misplaced.

Dialogue between characters should be fluid and natural, while slowly building the plot. It should not be full of back-story or excessive foreshadowing. Your characters are more than vessels to carry information. They need to be as three-dimensional as your reader is. As I said, dialogue does not need to be 100% realistic, but it does need to be about 90% realistic. Different types of people speak in different ways. Dialogue can be used to show individualism while still being used to advance the story. Let your readers know who your characters are on a level they can relate to so they will care about what they have to say.

3. Too tedious.
Too many times, for lack of a better phrase, characters are just boring when they talk. If I’m left wondering why two characters had a certain conversation, that usually means it can be cut. Dialogue needs to either help develop a character or help develop the plot, preferably both simultaneously. If it does neither, delete it. For example:

“How are you, Mary? What did you do today?”
“Hi Joe. I went to work and then took the kids to dance class.”
“Tell Bob I said hello. See you later.”
“OK. Bye!”

This scene shows that Mary and Joe are friends, possibly neighbors, but how necessary is that exchange to the story? If a piece of dialogue could be explained away with paraphrasing, always paraphrase to something like, They explained pleasantries and then [one of them said something very important to the plot!]. We don’t need to see everything that happens. Books are not real life. Some exchanges can be left to the imagination or simply assumed.

Weak dialogue could make or break an agent’s decision on your manuscript, even if the idea, execution of the plot, and character development is all there. Dialogue is part of the narrative. It’s a key factor in how the book is read and enjoyed. It’s also hard to teach, but hopefully these examples will help if you’re not sure about how to effectively use dialogue in your novel.

PS: To anyone who wants a quick master class in writing dialogue, I suggest doing a close-read of J.D. Salinger’s short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish. There are many reasons to love this story, but one thing I always admired about it is that it’s told almost exclusively in dialogue. Too much dialogue in a row can get taxing to read, but Salinger finds a way to make it work. He’s not only writing chit-chat between a mother and daughter, nor is he creating a conversation full of back-story that diminishes the shocking ending. He makes it work for two reasons – and it’s the two things every writer needs to do no matter what they write: Choose your words carefully and trust your reader to see what’s left unsaid.

Band-Aids

For those of you who have experienced the querying process, you more than likely have also experienced rejection. For writers, this is all part of the game. It’s even expected. But some rejections sting more than others. They aren’t the ones in which the characters aren’t developed, the plot isn’t there, or the genre is one agents just don’t represent. The ones that really hurt are the other ones. The ones who have the characters, have the story, and even have the writing ability, but for whatever reason, it’s just not coming together.

When this happens, two things take place:
1) Agents cry. We can’t figure out what’s wrong; We only know something isn’t working, and for this we grieve for what might have been.
2) Writers cry. The rejection letter is basically saying, “I love you, but let’s see other people.” It’s the break up that never gets any closure.

How can this be avoided, you ask? As with most things in life, it’s the little things that can sometimes make the biggest difference. The last thing you want to happen is have an agent on the fence about your novel, only to have them decide that the writing isn’t strong enough to hold their interest. A lot of times this can happen simply because the agent doesn’t have time to devote to something she’s not 100% positive about.

The thing is, there is no way to know how an agent will react to your writing, which is why before you begin querying, your novel should be exactly where you want it to be. Agents will always have their own ideas about how to fix plot holes or amp up certain scenes. What’s harder to do is try to fix a person’s writing style, so most times we won’t try. That’s why in addition to having the story you want, you should make sure your writing is the strongest it can be.

Good news! You can do this without having to edit a thing. I call this the Band-Aid approach to editing. No heavy lifting, no major plot shifts or added content. Just old-fashioned quick fixes that could make or break an on-the-fence agent’s opinion of your writing, especially if the agent you are querying is not known to be editorially hands-on.

Top 5 Band-Aids to Apply Before Querying:

1. Conjunction Injunction.
You know that scene in Dude, Where’s My Car? (you know you have) where Ashton Kutcher is at the drive-thru and the woman keeps asking, “And then???” Finally Ashton screams, “No ‘and then!'”  This is how I feel when I read too many sentences in a row that begin with conjunctions. Grammar aside, it turns the narrative into the kind droning “and then this happened and then this happened” story your four-year-old would tell you.

Sometimes standalone sentences that begin with “And” can be used for emphasis. And that’s OK. Other sentences, however, can end up sounding like a mere continuation of the previous sentence, making them sound weaker in comparison. Keep your voice strong, whether in narration or dialogue. Each sentence matters, and if too many of them become weak, they can start to reflect on your novel as a whole.

2. Avoid Entering the Department of Redundancy Department.
In the darkened room, a single light bulb flickered. He stood in front of me, facing me. I looked at him with my eyes, my heart beating in my chest.

For some reason, many writers think that writing this way builds suspense or adds depth to a scene. It doesn’t. All three of these sentences have repeated themselves, and your reader is savvy enough to figure that out. Instead take the above scene and remove the fluff.

A single light bulb flickered in the room. We looked each other in the eyes, and my heart pounded.

With these changes, we still know it’s dark in the room because there’s only one light bulb, and it seems to be dying. We also know that the main character and the man in the room are facing each other because they’re looking at each other in the eyes, not with their eyes. How else do you look at people? Likewise, where else would a person’s heart beat? (Other than beneath floorboards, I guess… but let’s try not to copy Poe.)

3. Don’t Always Think Before You Speak.
To paraphrase my former colleague, Nathan Bransford (in the form of a tweet), have your characters say anything except for what they are thinking.

In this other form of redundancy, writers end up repeating exact lines simply by making their characters think one thing and then say it out loud. We all love characters who say exactly what’s on their mind, but unless the character tells us she’s thinking one thing and then says the opposite, let’s assume that whatever she says is what she means. Even if later in the novel we learn she was lying, at least we’ll have been spared repetition.

4. Always Remember to Never Remember.
When a writer, particular when speaking in the past tense, wants to emphasize something, sometimes the narrator will begin a sentence with “I remember” or “I always.” Lesser offenses begin with “I think.” These modifiers are (almost always) surefire ways of turning showing sentences into telling sentences, thus making them weak for no reason.

When a narrator feels the need to say “I remember” in one sentence and not another, does that mean the rest of the story is based on speculation? Do we have reason to believe the story being presented to us is something the narrator doesn’t remember happening? It’s already obvious the narrator remembers what they are telling you just based on the fact they are telling you.

In all this remembering, sometimes a narrator will go deeper into the past and reveal that they “always” used to do something. Saying they’ve always done something doesn’t actually tell the reader anything. We just have to take the character at their word. If you show the character doing something, then we’ll believe them, and we’ll believe that they remember doing it.

5. Pass Writing 101.
I hate that I’m about to give the “avoid the passive voice” rule because you all have heard it a million times. Sometimes, the passive voice is useful. In mysteries, for example, “A doorbell rang” is a perfectly acceptable sentence. Who rang it? The killer??? We don’t know. And we shouldn’t know – yet.

In other circumstances, however, the passive voice just makes for lazy writing. Give your characters a purpose, have them act, and don’t leave situations up to chance. What you might perceive as being intentionally cagey could read as a lack of confidence in your own writing.

Please remember that these five Band-Aids are just that. They aren’t meant to heal deep wounds or stop excessive bleeding. If an agent doesn’t love your story, then Band-Aids won’t help you. You’ll either need to majorly revise or accept your fate and try someone else. Band-Aids are to ensure your writing is as strong as your story, and to avoid turning silly mistakes into a make-or-break situation. That way, if you get a rejection saying “this isn’t for me,” you can simply move on to the next one without worrying whether it was because of that misplaced comma.