“By the way, did you know they’re making Pacific Rim 2? Oh, and dinner’s ready.”
Cue five minutes of shouting and vague TV noises while Boxy shoots at zombies while some cheesy horror flick is playing on the second monitor, followed by:
Seriously, that was last night’s pre-dinner conversation.
Real-life dialogue is… unique. It’s awkward, it’s choppy, it’s unfocused, it frequently meanders off-topic, it picks up on arbitrary unintelligible inside-jokes and half-finished conversations from earlier in the day/week/month/year, it’s full of filler words like ‘like’ and ‘um’.
In short, real dialogue is pretty much unintelligible.
In some cases, you get people who understand each other so well that their communication is might as well be another language to outside observers, full of codes and allusions and inside-jargon that’s unique to their in-group, even if it’s an in-group of two.
Linguistically and anthropologically, it’s absolutely fascinating.
As a general rule, though, dialogue shouldn’t require an advanced degree in anthropology and linguistics to figure out. In novels, dialogue is meant to convey information to the reader, so there are certain goals you should probably aim for:
A smooth flow from one subject to the next, and from one mood to the next
Clear language: even when using slang and dialect, it shouldn’t be a complete puzzle to figure out what your character is trying to say
Everything said in the dialogue should serve a purpose, so avoid filler topics and filler language
Of course, like all things in writing, those are guidelines more than hard rules. But when you deviate from the guidelines, make sure you do it with an understanding of why they’re in place and what you’re specifically gaining by going off that track.
It’s a writer’s job to explain, to take that vivid picture in your head and use words to paint it in mine. That takes a lot of effort, a lot of detail, and a lot of words. Sometimes, though, those words can clutter the sentences, bog down prose, or otherwise get in the way of the image. We’re left walking a razor’s edge: too many words, and you risk overwriting. Too few, and you risk not being understood.
(That’s the last blade-pun, I promise).
You might notice the problem: it’s very difficult to identify that line in your own writing. After all, you already know what you’re trying to convey. For a matter like this, which is dependent on clarity and reader understanding, I recommend getting a beta editor to look over your manuscript and point out which sections are unclear or overwritten.
What is overwriting?
There’s different varieties, but these are the ones I see most often:
Purple prose — When the writing calls attention to the author instead of the story or characters. Often it comes in the form of waxing poetic at length about… anything, and it typically comes across as the author trying too hard to be fancy. That’s not to say good writing can’t be poetic, but you’ll often get a stronger effect with a single significant detail than with a paragraph-long abstract description.
Needless repetition — Sometimes it’s as subtle as using both a dialogue tag and an action beat for the same section of dialogue. Sometimes it’s characters repeating the same information to one another. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase being reused too frequently in a short space, when one or more of them could be replaced by a synonym. And sometimes it’s the same detail being given in two different ways.
Understood — “He reached down to his belt level, wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword, tightened his grip, contracted the muscles in his arm and shoulder, pulled the weapon from his scabbard, and raised it into the air in front of him.” Or, once my scalpel has had its say: “He drew his sword.” There are a lot of secondary and tertiary details that readers will assume to be true when they’re given a little bit of context. The biggest offender: “he said, looking at her.” If two people are in a conversation, unless it’s explicitly stated they’re avoiding eye contact, we will always assume they’re looking at one another, because that’s the way people hold conversations (outside of movies and television, of course).
Unnecessary words –– Descriptors can often be trimmed if they’re understood. For example, “He sat down in the chair” can usually be slimmed into “He sat in the chair” (unlike “he sat up in the chair”, which indicates an entirely different action). Similar examples include “stood up” and “woke up“.
These are all things to give you ideas, but like all writing, it’s subjective. In the end it all comes down to whether that word or phrase helps to create a vivid image or emotion in the reader’s mind, or whether it’s just clutter. .
A dialogue tag is a a label which tells the reader exactly who said what: he said, she said, I said, the borg collective said as one— etc.
The most common format for a dialogue tag is exactly what I wrote above: [Speaker] said/ [Speaker] asked. The name of the speaker first, followed by the manner in which the quotation is being expressed.
In times of old, it was common to put said at the beginning of the tag: said Billy, asked the waitress. This order still shows up sometimes, but for the most part it’s considered archaic.
The most effective time to use the older style is when the description of the subject gets overly long, and the verb is in danger of getting lost. For example: “Want fries with that?” the waitress who brought them their menus asked. vs. “Want fries with that?” asked the waitress who brought them their menus.
A dialogue beat is an action that identifies the speaker.
The beat shares the same line as the dialogue. This is why it’s so important to switch paragraphs when a person besides the speaker is doing anything. For example: “What, is there something on my face?” I wiped my chin. He pointed at his own cheek. “Right over there.”
Beats tend to be short. When they get too long, the reader can start losing track of what’s actually said.
In the same vein, using too many beats in one conversation can become distracting, and draw attention away from the dialogue.
Keep the actions important and relevant.
And sometimes, your best bet is to use nothing at all.
This works best when you’ve got only two characters with distinct dialogue.
Use it alongside beats and tags.
All used together, it looks something like this (tags will be in bold, and beats in italics):
“Could you please move?”
“It’s a possibility,” he said. “Who’s asking?”
“The person whose rib cage you’re crushing. If you could just— thank you.” I rolled over and took a breath. “I have to say, I’m a little bit disappointed.”
“Disappointed?” His eyes widened. “I’ve been doing this a long time, mouse. Nobody’s ever tried to give me a critique.”
“I’m not complaining,” I said quickly. “Not really. I appreciate your being here. I do. But the stories always make death seem so… romantic. This is… not.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“It’s just that you only die once,” I said. “I suppose I expected it to be a big to-do.”
“Then it’s a good thing you’re not dead.”