In real life, people blab on about nothing at all. They tell you about their terrible morning, that the dog got out, that they missed their bus, that they forgot their umbrella… Or they recount the insulting thing their mother-in-law said about their brand new jeans, or describe in excruciating detail the reasons why their podiatrist thinks their bunions might turn into hammertoes.
In real life, talking is often a way to relieve tension, make connections, and fill time.
In books, movies, and television, dialogue must always be spare, purposeful and move the story forward. Even Quentin Tarantino’s crazy monologues have an agenda– to reveal character, stakes, and establish tone.
Here are some ways to trim your dialogue and make it lean, powerful, and serve your story.
Cut the chit chat. In our normal lives, we say, “Hello, how are you?” “Nice to meet you.” “How about those Dodgers?” As writers, we need to get to the point much faster. It’s ok to have a greeting, but if it’s not necessary, cut it out. Do an experiment. Cut out ALL the chit chat. See how much more quickly your story moves.
Try not to reveal too much backstory through dialogue. Do the opposite. Is there something your character is NOT saying? Can you create a dramatic question around this holding back? In the movie CHINATOWN, there’s a scene where Jake Gittes asks Evelyn Mulwray about her father. She immediately changes the subject. We know there’s something she’s hiding and this pulls us in and makes us engage with the narrative. We want to know what happened in the past with her father. And this backstory pays off big time later.
Never reveal through dialogue what we’ve already learned from previous scenes. If you just had a scene where someone dove off a cliff into deep waters off the coast of Mexico, don’t have her say in the next scene, “I just dove off a cliff into the deep waters off the coast of Mexico!” Instead, let her take action as a result of her excitement in accomplishing this feat. Could she go to a bar and buy drinks for everyone? Always give the reader new stuff in each scene.
Make sure the dialogue is either moving the story forward or revealing something important about your character. Be clear about what the character’s objective is in the scene and focus the dialogue on achieving this goal. Let your character use different strategies to get what he or she wants. Random monologues should only be used if they somehow reveal something important about who your character is, or what he or she wants.
If a scene is too talky, try cutting out ALL the dialogue. Is there a way to reveal the character going after what he or she wants purely through action, rather than talking?
Dialogue can be an incredibly important part of creating character and driving a story forward. It can also slow down the pace, and drag the narrative to a screeching halt as characters greet each other, explain all the pertinent things that happened in the past, and summarize what the reader already knows.
Take Action! Is your dialogue crippling the pacing of your book or film? Try cutting the chit chat, and creating questions around backstory rather than spoon feeding info to the reader. Try not to use dialogue to repeat what the reader already knows, and make sure all your dialogue is moving the story forward or revealing character. Whether you’re writing fiction, memoir, or a screenplay, it’s always better to show rather than tell.
Sometimes it’s what’s NOT said, that pulls the reader in.
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