Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How *not* to write dialogue

I was watching my favorite soap opera the other day. (Don’t judge me, people!) They were doing this recap show where the characters were sitting around talking about past events. You know like: “Remember when the son you had with the farm lady you married twenty years ago grew up and came to live with you and then accidently killed your unborn baby and tried to drive your current wife crazy?”

Man. I hate these kinds of recaps. They’re annoying. But they are a good example of what NOT to do when you’re writing.

It’s a challenge to give readers the information that they need, but resist the temptation to do it all while your characters are talking. Your characters already know each other (probably) and they already know certain things. Don’t put awkward words in their mouths.

For example: let’s suppose two brothers are on the phone, discussing their father’s sudden illness.

Brother #1: Dad is in bad shape. I think we should catch a flight home.

Brother #2: That’s a good idea. It’ll take five hours to fly from Ohio to Kansas so we should call now and start making reservations.

Brother #1: I guess I’ll have to make arrangements with my ex-wife, Kate, for my kids Michael, Todd and Mary.

Brother #2: And I’ll have to take some time off from my job as a firefighter.

Brother#1: I’ve already called our younger brother, Jack, at Princeton. He’s on his way.

This is an exaggerated example, of course, but Gaaaaaaw! Stilted, soap opera-y dialog. Let’s count the things brothers would already know and therefore wouldn't need to share while having a conversation:

*where they live and how long it’ll take to fly "home"

*that Brother #1 was divorced (from a woman named Kate) and the names of his kids

*What Brother #2 does for a living

*Who Jack is and where he went to school

There are ways to sneak in bits of information using dialogue, though. Let's use revise the same example;

Brother #1: Dad is in bad shape. I think we should catch a flight home.

Brother #2: That’s a good idea. I think Southwest flies direct to KC. [We know where they're heading and that wherever they are, they must fly to get home quickly.]

Brother #1: I'll have to make arrangements with Kate. It's her weekend with the kids. [Suggests Kate and Brother are not together. Let's us know there are kids.]

Brother #2: And I’ll have to take some time off from the station. [Station could be police or fire or something else altogether. But that's okay. We can get more clues later on.]

Brother#1: I’ve called Jack. He’s on his way. [Jack must be important family member or friend.]

I know this example isn't really middle grade or young adult, but hopefully you get the idea. Just something to think about the next time you’re writing dialogue or you need to give readers information.

Sorry. Gotta run. It's time for my favorite soap op.... er, I mean my favorite research show to start.


1 comment:

  1. Cute example! I still find dialogue in manuscripts (mine and others) I mark "they already know this." My shorthand for they shouldn't be talking about it if they don't have to. Especially when there's a mystery element involved, it's hard to keep track of who knows what.


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