This week is How I Write Dialogue week at Author2Author. What a great week for me. I love writing dialogue. It's one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I love giving each of my characters a unique way of speaking. I love deciding who uses "gonna" and who uses ten dollar words. I love revising dialogue to make my first-attempt jokes funnier. I love overheard dialogue, interrupted dialogue and straight-up-lying dialogue. In fact, I love it so much that my biggest problem with dialogue is knowing how much to delete.
"Dialogue should have conflict" isn't a good guideline for me because it doesn't go far enough. Really, I could write dialogue for pages, and it will crackle with conflict. But it will still be too long.
So, in keeping with my 2009 theme of improving my pacing, here are some guidelines for those of us who love to write dialogue too much:
1. You only get one joke per exchange. Nooo, this is terrible! But doesn't humor build? Aren't multiple punchlines funnier than a single punchline? It's hard, really hard to cut something that made a beta reader mark "LOL." But it's a pacing issue. When you're stopping to be funny, the reader is stopping to laugh. And losing the plotline. I'm still going to write too many LOL lines in my first drafts, I'm sure. But then I have to figure out which ones are worth keeping. Maybe I'll cut them in half. (Ow. Ow. Why is cutting funny stuff the hardest?)
2. Stage directions are not dialogue. Sometimes I write dialogue because it's the easy way out. I'm not doing exposition in dialogue ("As you know, Bob, the elevator goes up and down.") ... or am I? What about an exchange like this?
Rocky: "I'm tired. Let's take the elevator."
Bob: "Don't be a wimp. The stairs are right there."
Conflict, right? Characterization, right? And yet still totally unneeded. How about "Bob took the stairs and, after a wistful glance at the elevator, Rocky followed."
Sometimes Deena and I call the actions that move characters from one place to the next stage directions. I need to resist the temptation to have my characters argue about stage directions. Because, man, do my characters love to argue with each other. About everything.
3. Dialogue slows things down. Do you want to slow things down here? Yes, most of the time, dialogue slows the pace. It stretches out a scene and makes things longer. Sometimes scenes need to be long. The most important scenes, the height of the emotional conflicts, can use some great dialogue. But if a scene reads too long, for me, dialogue is probably the culprit and should be treated as the usual suspect. It needs to get in and out, bam, like a guerrilla warrior. Two, three lines, done. Back to action and internal dialogue, which should be carrying the meat of the story.
Okay, what about scripts? I'm working on a script for a graphic novel. I thought it would be playing to my strength, as I love dialogue so much. Believe it or not, I'm still writing too much dialogue! I'm forgetting to rely on narration boxes and artwork. So what I learned is that even in a script, the temptation to rely on dialogue to carry a story must be resisted.
One day, I'll have to write a blog post all in dialogue. Maybe then I'll finally learn my lesson. Too much dialogue is too much dialogue Kate! In the meantime, I'll be taking advice this week from my blog peeps. Feel free to school me, everyone.
ETA: I apologize for the lack of paragraph breaks in this post. Blogger seems unable to recognize them today. I'll keep trying to fix.
-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages