Fluffy Toddler Bunny

260 Posts
Karma: +32/-1
A while back, I posted about some trouble I was having with a story. The characters talked too much. That was just how the scenes played in my head, and (as someone told me lately) trying to create and evaluate at the same time is a tug-of-war. Still, I like it when there's slightly less to edit when I go back, not... I don't know if any of you have been through this, but... having so much to edit that I confuse it for a sign that there's not really any story here at all, or not one worth telling.

It would look better, but it didn't feel right, to pad the parts between dialogue with a description of their body language for no reason. Falling back on a technical craft should make things easy, but don't readers know when they're just reading the author's padding? :S Maybe not, but I was afraid of that. Exposition or information-dumping didn't feel right there, either. I figured that if I got bored writing it, then someone else was going to get bored reading it.

Two pieces of advice got me out of it.

The first was a new definition of dialogue. Dialogue is when your character tells part of the story better than you can. Thank you!

That made me realize that the "missing" prose around the dialogue was party due to my unexamined belief that I shouldn't be the one telling this story. I wanted to suspend the reader's disbelief by vanishing between the lines, because that's what I liked to read. I didn't like it when the author/narrator interrupted or editorialized. Once I could admit that this story was mine and I was the one who should make it exist because I loved it, then what I already had improved. At least, it got closer to my idea of how it was supposed to read (even if I felt a little underdressed, creatively speaking.) It was still description and exposition that flooded in, but it didn't feel like padding anymore.

The second was a piece of advice from a screenplay writer, Guy Gallo, in his how-to book Character as True North.

Remember that dialogue is not simply alternating speeches. It is almost always some sort of contest. One character wants something from the other, wants to convince them, seduce them, dominate them; wants to be forgiven, wants to be loved or feared or followed. It is rarely information disguised as speech (and when it is, it is usually deadly dull). The facts of a dialogue exchange are never as interesting as the emotional content of the contest. So always run your dialogue through this wringer: Who is trying to get what?

This helped me to edit and add to the scenes, even though I was writing in a format other than the advice applies. Another block I had was that I felt the mood of the character should have already been obvious from the vocabulary and sentence structure of their dialogue. If I added body language, or a line telling the reader what the character's tone of voice was, or the character's feelings, then that would belabor the point.

The opportunity I missed was showing that people aren't so simple. A character's mood can be different from the motive, which leaves a lot that they can't just say. In one scene, an older brother scolded a younger brother partially because of a recent inconvenience that the younger caused, and the dialogue brought up some much older issues in their family that they still resented each other for. That was all conveyed through dialogue, and I could keep the mystery of what the long-past event was to the reader because both characters knew what happened. The younger character didn't know that the older character still resented that event, and that would motivate a later plot event. Good enough? I thought so. But, ngyyaaarghbleagh too much dialogue!!!

When I found more contradiction, though, it became less of a verbal ping-pong match. I found the most useful contradiction in the older brother, who wasn't only angry but frustrated (which is pained disappointment plus expectations for better.) He was angry at his younger brother because he wanted better for the both of them, but of course being angry doesn't make anything better, it's just a natural reaction to things getting worse.

When many other characters informed each other of new events unfolding, it used to be another ping-pong match on the page because I usually wanted to show that they were friends. Without even the tension of an argumentative relationship, I didn't feel like these scenes were worth more attention, even though I knew that they should be. Then I found a frequent contradiction that I kept missing: when a character spoke their mind, what they really wanted was the listener's mind communicated to them.

The way I wrote dialogue before resulted in scenes that showed two or more people so much alike that they had the same ideas about the same interests. The only reason that they talked was because there was no telepathy in this world. Boring! What could I do, though? I had already developed the characters. But with a new perspective, they became friends who don't know everything between the both of them... but who care. So, they talk. Does he know where he's being deployed, how dangerous it is? Does he know that I'll miss him? Does she know that her hometown was attacked by enemy troops? Does she know that I'll be here for her even if none of her family survived?

I hope it's less obvious now that the scenes were only stuck in there for plot purposes ("Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Enemy army attacks peaceful village of allied nation...") and the shallowest of characterization ("See those three? They are friendly because they are friends,") but for now I'm just happy to be writing something that feels like I'll be proud of it one day! :)

Maybe these tips would help somebody else out there with a similar problem, too.



Marketing Team

6,253 Posts
Karma: +94/-1
I think I understand how you feel...sometimes you edit so much you wonder if the work is crap, you're taking a new direction, or if anyone will understand at all lol.

But editing is a good sign, it means you're fine tuning it.

As for writing dialogue and getting "bored"...Are you sure you're bored of the conversation or could you be getting sick of pressing " and " and indenting all the time? Because I can do that for about two lines before I start to lose my mind, and some of my stories have whole sections that are nothing but conversation (The one I posted here had 4 pages of conversation for two characters but it was broken up between actions and body language because that was important to my story)....so believe me when I say I get sick and tired of it too ha ha :lol:.

Also I believe there's entire pages of dialogue in The Da Vinci Code, which was especially wonderful (story within a story).

I also agree about writers interrupting...you can tell. I'm really glad you found a way around doing this and getting back into it!! :D

You have some really fantastic tips here, and it's sure to help anyone who reads it improve their dialogue a fair bit! I'm sure you're already proud of your writing though ;).



Growing Baby Bunny

82 Posts
Karma: +6/-0
Vox, a wonderful book by Nicholson Baker, is nothing but dialogue. I mean nothing else at all, not an introduction, not narrative paragraphs interspersed between them, not even, I think, body language descriptions or other non-dialogical insertions (though I'd have to check again for this last one).

On the other hand, many books make very little use of dialogue, and let us know how the characters feel and what they think in the narrative itself.

Both ways are right, if the writer knows what they're doing. In a well-written story, body language descriptions are not just a way to cut between the dialogical bits, but an integral part of the scene. Typically the words the characters say are secondary to what they do with their hands, what they look at, and so on.

It sounds like you've solved your problem, so kudos! And thanks for the detailed post! I only wanted to point out that some things that are typically seen as just technical shortcuts can actually be the most personal way to tell a story.


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Elly Marks (EllyMarks) is a Just Creative who has made 260 posts since joining Creative Burrow on 01:25am Wed, Feb 26, 2014. EllyMarks was invited by no one.

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