Like Misty, I’ve been thinking a lot about dialogue this week and I wanted to add to her excellent points. On Monday I was on a flight listening to people talk around me and I remembered a manuscript I read a while ago that began with two characters on a plane. They were strangers and we watched as the hero walked down the aisle (dealing with people in the way, looking for overhead space — the usual stuff) and then him sitting, getting comfortable, and striking up a conversation with his seat-mate. They talked about what you’d expect: wondering if they’d have the middle seat between them free or if someone would snag it at the last minute, where each was headed, was the plane going to take off on time, what were they doing in the departure city and what waited for them in the destination city.
It was all very very real. And that was the problem. Because real conversations can be really really boring. None of that dialogue was important to the plot point — it was just dragging the scene along until something interesting could happen. Sagablessed asked last week how you make dialogue in the “real world” seem so easy and my response would be to not make it real. I know that sounds counter-intuitive but in real life we inject a whole lot of “extra” into our conversations which is fine for real life but can really bog down the pace of a narrative.
One of the ways to keep pacing tight in a story is to cut out anything extraneous. The key here is to determine what “extraneous” is. Describing someone’s expression or the action they’re taking while speaking probably isn’t extraneous. And sometimes including the “um” and “er” in dialogue is important as well (within limits). What’s extraneous are all the little filler things that exist in almost any conversation.
Take this morning for example. I’m at a writing retreat and a friend of mine has access to sales data that I wanted to see. So she walked into the kitchen and our real conversation went something like this:
Me: “Oh, hey, you’re awake. I was hoping you wouldn’t sleep too late today.”
Her: “Yeah, I’m still not used to the time change.”
Me: “I know and also it’s so dry out here. I can barely stand it at night. My eyes are killing me.”
Her: “I know, at home we have a humidifier and it helps.”
Me: “I know. Anyway, so since you’re up now, I was wondering if at some point I could use your computer to look up some numbers?”
Her: “Oh yeah, of course. Sure, not a problem.”
Me: “Oh, are there still bananas over there?”
Her: “I think there are a few left. They put them over here with the bread but I don’t know why.”
Me: “Hmmm. Maybe I’ll make toast instead. But do I really want toast? When do you think lunch will be?”
Her: “Dunno — do we know if anyone’s cooking lunch today? Oh, and did you want to see those numbers now?”
Me: “Sure, might as well before you get to work. No reason not to.”
Her: “Let me just grab coffee and some grapes first.”
Me: “Fine. Should we go outside so we don’t bother anyone?”
And OMG if you’re like me right now you’re dying of boredom! But that’s what a real conversation looks like! It meanders and rarely stays on point and even the important information is buried. If that scene were in a book, what would be the point of the scene? That I want the information, that she has it, and that I need to get access to it. Maybe throwing in a line about bananas adds to the layering of the scene but all the rest of that stuff is extraneous and it buries what’s important.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this because I always have a difficult time writing the very first conversation between two strangers who will be developing an important relationship in the story (often they’re the hero and heroine of my romance sub-plot). Because if you remember meeting a boyfriend or girlfriend you know how many inane and long and boring (to an outsider at least) conversations you had in order to create the romantic bond. But in a book you don’t have that luxury. The reader is going to get very bored very quickly with the kind of introductory surface-level dialogue that takes place in real life before you get to the more substantive stuff.
So this is why you have to break “real life” when you’re writing dialogue. Sometimes you can engineer a situation where you can leap immediately into the substantive. Perhaps the “strangers” were friends in the past so you can bypass the awkward beginning stuff; or maybe they’re in a very tense situation together where you skip over the beginning stuff because there are more pressing issues.
To tie this back in: if you’re going to introduce two strangers on a plane and the reader knows the plane is going to crash soon, don’t bog it all down with the kind inane dialogue that actually exists in real life. Figure out what the point of that scene is: to establish the hero? To introduce a secondary character? To show the “before” snapshot (and the secondary question to that is what is the before snapshot and how best can you show it?)? Once you know the point, tailor the dialogue to meet it. If the goal is to introduce the hero, figure out what the reader needs to know at that moment: maybe that he’s on a business trip and needs to get home to his kids. If that’s the case, do we need to hear from the stranger about his troubles finding overhead space for his bag? Probably not. But if the goal is to introduce the secondary character, then dialogue about the overhead bins might be relevant and important.
Think of it this way: if you were in that scene on that plane, sitting in front of those characters would you be listening in or tuning them out? If your answer is the latter, why would the reader choose any differently?