Avoiding the laundry list
‘Laundry lists’ refer to writing where the author has tried to ram in as much detail as possible. Often because someone told them they needed to add ‘more description or setting’. You see it most when a new character wanders onto the page:
‘Ellie is tall, tanned, slim and very very blonde with big blue unblinking eyes that peer into your soul. She has such perfect skin and an obvious love of boho chic. Today, she’s paired grey Ugg boots with black shiny dance tights and added a pink ruffle skirt, topped off with a graphic print shirt. The overall look is of someone who got dressed in the dark. Her voice is raspy like someone who smokes many cigarettes, and she breathes heavily.’
Worse, it’s deployed when setting up a scene in a new location:
‘The cafe was dark and unwelcoming, the windows smeared with finger prints. The rickety tables had seen better days. None of the chairs matched and the floor was scuffed. Dog-eared menus sat between grubby salt and pepper shakers and the air was thick with the smell of greasy bacon. The counter itself was littered with yesterday’s free newspapers and in need of a good clean. A coat stand in the corner was overloaded with jackets. Red, blue, green, black and grey . . .”
In both cases, the reader is likely to lose interest fast, be overwhelmed and most likely have the writer pegged for a rank amateur.
When you talk to your friends, you don’t laundry list. You don’t take a deep breath and deliver a blow-by-blow account of the day you’ve had. Unless you’re in an absolute fouler of a mood, then you might.
And so it should be in your writing.
But first, let’s get one thing clear. Writing authentic dialogue isn’t the same as being able to scribe word for word what real people say. You’ll get no credit for jotting down that interesting conversation you overheard on the bus into town.
Real life dialogue is peppered with conversational ticks. And they should never make it into your story.
‘Hello,’ she said, as Monica sat.
‘How are you?’
‘Fine, thanks,. you?’
‘Fabulous, right, so shall we get started?’
‘Great, then . . .’
But what if you do have a whole bunch of stuff you want to tease out in conversation? Again, the written word needs to work very differently to the real world. In a story, dialogue should move the story on, create or confirm conflict, keep the reader engaged. Monica and her friend’s greetings tell us nothing, move the story nowhere and as pleasant as it all may sound, you’ll tune out fast.
How about if things took a different turn?
Monica sat. Katie nodded hello.
‘How are you?’ she said.
The obvious answer would be that Katie felt awful. She hadn’t slept. She’d dreaded this meeting. But the truth wasn’t an option.
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘you?’
Monica shuffled papers.
‘Shall we get started?’
By adding in some action, a smidge of inner monologue and suggesting what lies beneath, there’s a story to be told.
Tuning out the ramble
In real life, when you talk to people, they’re more likely to respond to the first thing you say than the last. People latch onto initial words (or arguments) and prepare their answers. They tune out the rest of the ramble. It’s human nature.
In fiction again, things tend to work differently. Like I said above, dialogue exists to carry your story. And the writing needs to reflect that.
The average reader tends to carry the last words they’ve read into the next sentence, so rearrange the words spoken to allow each character to respond to the last line delivered.
That’s not to say you can’t have a character machine-gun ideas:
‘We need to clean the kitchen. Mum will be furious if she finds it like this. And the bedroom. One of us should make the beds and fluff up pillows. You know how fussy she gets about that. And have you seen the bathroom. It’s like a bomb went off. She’s going to go ape when she sees the dining room. Who let the dog in there anyway?’
‘Dude,’ I said. ‘Slow down. One thing at a time.’
Writing with a purpose
Did I mention already that dialogue should always help move your story along? Of course I did, because it’s the golden rule.
It’s a way to add depth to your characters and convey information. When your writing reaches the editing stage, ask yourself if a conversation adds anything. Would the story stand alone without it?
‘I saw Glenda at the beach,’ Tilly said.
‘Yes, she was walking her dog.’
‘I didn’t know she had a dog.’
‘Yes, it’s a golden retriever.’
Unless Glenda’s dog is going to play a vital role in a later scene, this sparkling exchange might need to go.
I’ve compiled a whole load of tips on writing dialogue into a free e-book, available to anyone who signs up to my mailing list. Or you can buy it online through all the usual places if you’d rather feather my nest with your hard-earned cash.