I’ve not done one of those ‘writing tip’ posts for ages, so I thought I’d wade back into the waters with a pop at the heinous crime of laundry list writing. You’ll find more tips on writing great dialogue in ‘Talking out Loud‘ – one of those ebook things that I’m flogging on Amazon as we speak.
‘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 scenes in new locations:
‘The cafe was dark and unwelcoming, the windows smeared with fingerprints. 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, become overwhelmed and (most likely) have the writer pegged for a rank amateur. Or approach the authorities in The Hague and ask about what exactly constitutes a war crime.
Writing how you speak
When you talk to your friends, you don’t take a deep breath and deliver a blow-by-blow account of your day … unless you’re in an absolute fouler of a mood, then you might.
That’s how you need to think when you write.
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.
We pepper real life dialogue 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 . . .’
What if you have a bunch of stuff you want to tease out in conversation? Again, the written word needs to work differently to the real world. In a story, dialogue should move on the story, create or confirm conflict, and (above all) keep the reader engaged.
Monica and her friend’s greetings told us nothing, moved the story nowhere and as pleasant as it all may sound, I tuned out fast.
How about if things took a different turn?
Katie nodded a stiff hello. ‘How are you?’
The obvious answer was Katie felt awful. She hadn’t slept. She’d dreaded this meeting, but the truth wasn’t an option.
‘Fine,’ she said.
Monica shuffled official-looking 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 likely to respond to the first thing you say rather 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, things work differently. Like I said above, dialogue exists to carry your story. And the writing needs to reflect this.
The average reader carries 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. It creates stress, tension, a sense of urgency:
Dan met me at the front door, his eyes already wide. ‘We need to clean the kitchen. Mum will hit the feckin’ roof. Have you seen the bedroom? You need to make the bed and fluff the pillows. You know how she gets. Who let the bloody dog in the dining room, anyway? She’ll go ape.’
‘Dude,’ I said. ‘Slow down. One thing at a time.’
Writing with a purpose
Did I mention before in one of these tip blogs that dialogue should always help move your story along? I’m fairly sure I did, because it’s the golden rule.
It adds depth to your characters and conveys information. When your writing reaches the editing stage, ask yourself if every conversation adds to the story. Would it be missed?
‘I saw Glenda at the beach,’ Tilly said. ‘Walking her dog.’
‘I didn’t know she had one.’
‘Yes, it’s a golden retriever.’
Unless Glenda’s dog will play a vital role in a later scene, this sparkling exchange might need to go.
Talking out loud
I’ve compiled a whole load of tips on writing dialogue into an e-book, and you can buy it online through all the usual places. Happily, it’s not one of those stuffy things that preaches the living soul out of you, so give it a go. It might help. It might make you smile.
Tell me how you write dialogue. I love to learn.