An Insanely Simple Trick for Tightening Your Dialogue

2 Steps to Streamlining Your Dialogue

This post is by Don McNair.

Not long ago I was a guest at a writing group’s critiquing session. Five members distributed pages they wanted critiqued and, one by one, read their submissions. When the third reader started, I glanced over her pages.

Every piece of dialogue was at least eight to ten lines long, and some reached a full page or more. Ah, this would be easy. When it came my time to comment, I told her the dialogue was too long and offered suggestions to shorten it, to make it more powerful and acceptable to an editor.

For several seconds, no one said anything. Finally the gentleman across the table looked up. “But that’s her voice!” He turned to her. “I wouldn’t change a thing.” The reader shook her head. “Oh, I won’t. I won’t!” I was silent the rest of the session. What I wanted to tell her was this: “You could write every other sentence upside down and say that’s your voice, but editors will still reject your work.” When the session broke up I glanced at her as I walked out the door. I knew I was seeing a person who would never be published.

Your readers love dialogue

People love to read dialogue. It is, after all, human interaction, and we are all humans. It carries knowledge, emotion, humor—the whole gamut of what one’s mind can produce.

But newer, unpublished writers often get carried away. I’d estimate that, in half the manuscripts I’ve edited for others, dialogue passages are at least twice as long as they should be. In some cases, they become actual speeches, a way to pass on a lazy writer’s research. The woman I critiqued above was at the extreme end, to be sure, but she wasn’t alone.

How long should dialogue be? That’s an unfair question without knowing the story and circumstances. But I’d say most passages should consist of four or fewer lines, with many just one line long. Generally, if your dialogue runs longer than that, you should edit it, break it up into smaller chunks, or both.

Let’s look at an example:

You know I’ve needed you to go through the shelves and pull out old and tattered books? Well, I’ve hired someone from a temp agency to help you. His name is John. He’s been re-shelving movies for the last fifteen minutes. I’ll introduce him to you and then leave you two to get started.”

 I’ve edited that passage to read like this:

“I’d like you to pull old and tattered books from the shelves today. I’ve hired John, a temp agency person, to help. Come on—I’ll introduce you.”

I cut out half the words. But notice I didn’t take out vital information, unless you consider his re-shelving movies the past few minutes vital. Mostly, I’ve taken out unneeded words which fogged the meaning. I show how to do this in my new book on self-editing, Editor-Proof Your Writing.

Some newer writers object to this editing, saying “But that’s how people talk.” Ah, that’s the point. We don’t want to present information as people actually say it. We don’t include all the “uhs,” hiccups, and rambling, do we? Our sole purpose with everything we write is to zap information into the readers’ minds without them realizing we are doing it.

Plan A: Streamlining

Let’s consider another example:

“Okay, Jim. I’ll see you the day after tomorrow. Probably late afternoon. I’m flying out here Monday morning and, with the time difference, can be in the office sometime in the afternoon. I’ll see you then.”

 We don’t need to use all those words to get across our meaning. Here’s how we can shorten that dialogue to make it concise and hard-hitting:

“Okay, Jim. I’ll see you the day after tomorrow. Probably late afternoon.”

We’ve cut verbiage by two-thirds. See what we took out? The bit about the time difference does not add to the knowledge we need. And the last sentence (“I’ll see you then.”) is redundant to the first, where we say, “I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.”

Plan B: Adding Character Interaction

We can consider the above Plan A, where we shorten dialogue simply by taking out the foggy words. But sometimes, after we do that, the dialogue is still too long. It’s time for “Plan B.” Consider the following dialogue:

Betty collapsed into a chair. “They haven’t found any more electronic bugs,” she said. “Jim has already interviewed the engineers, so they can go home soon. I’ve discussed everyone with him three times. There’s one ray of sunshine.  I had to talk fast, but I kept them from taking the sensors apart.”

We can improve this dialogue by breaking it up and presenting interaction with another character. That will add words, but it will also shorten dialogue while providing more reader-engaging details and a better sense of place. Perhaps like this:

Betty collapsed into a chair. “Well, they haven’t found any more electronic bugs.”

Phil looked up from his desk. “Good. Will they be done by midnight?”

“Well, Jim has already interviewed the engineers, and I’ve discussed everyone with him three times.”

Phil walked to the window. The moon was just peeping over the city skyline.

Betty smiled. At least the incident hadn’t stopped the world on its axis. She stood and walked to him. “One ray of sunshine, Phil. I had to talk fast, but I kept them from taking the sensors apart.”

Bottom line?  You can invite readers into your story if you take these steps:

  • Identify long dialogue.
  • Take out wasted words (see Editor-Proof Your Writing for step-by-step directions).
  • Break up the dialogue with scene detail and interaction with other characters.

About the Author: Don McNair has been a professional editor for more than 40 years and is the author of six novels, three nonfiction books, and the new book Editor-Proof Your Writing, coming in April from Quill Driver Books.

 

Tell me your opinion: Do you enjoy writing dialogue?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Excellent article presented in an easy to understand way. Thanks for sharing. I do like writing dialogue, but have recently removed all the paras. beginning with “Yes” or “No. Waste of time. 😉

  2. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Don!

  3. This was very helpful and reminded me of several things I have gotten out of the habit of doing. Thank you, Don!

  4. Very helpful post. Now I know some of what I was doing wrong.

  5. Glad you all enjoyed it! Dialogue is one of the big problems writers face, according to the many manuscripts I’ve seen as a professional editor. Bottom line? Long dialogue is boring, short dialog usually keeps readers interested.

  6. Dialogue is my favorite to write, and I know a lot of people say it’s hard, but I’ve always felt more comfortable with dialogue interaction than describing a beautiful scene. This article was a great reminder though, and I have a feeling next time I sit down to write I’ll be examining my dialogue, searching for places to improve! Thanks, Don.

  7. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s not clicking with the dialogue in a story I’m editing, and I think this post has helped me identify the issue. Thank you so much, Mr. McNair!

  8. I LOVE writing dialogue…and I agree wholeheartedly with this post. You SHOULD write as people speak, if you want your story to be believable (perfect speaking grammar is something few of us possess), but long soliloquies are best left to “Hamlet.”

  9. I really enjoyed this! Editing down dialogue is also true for Screenwriting– show don’t tell. Where I have trouble transitioning is that I have concise dialogue but my descriptions and action lack detail. Great post!!!

  10. Sarah, I agree. When we have dialogue, at least we are SHOWING rather than TELLING. A lot of beginning writers constantly TELL us what happens, rather than SHOWus with live people communicating. Yet we do need a bit of TELL to tie everything together.

  11. Great advice Don. It’s all to easy to allow dialog to become a poorly veiled info dump. Good suggestions.

  12. I thank you all for your good comments, and am happy this blog was helpful. Rich, you hit it right on the head. We’ve all seen writers use dialog to spout all their research, which the speaker would never do. Just glancing at dialog often tells us when the writer is a neophyte. Nothing wrong with being one, of course… if we keep trying to learn what we’re doing wrong!

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  14. I agree with about two-thirds of this. Your second step is an important one and I totally agree with you on it, but I have serious mixed feelings about the first.

    You see, sometimes when you are establishing a character, you want to show rather than tell about them, and one of the best ways to do that is through dialogue and diction therein. Some people speak very precisely and with excessive politeness; others are blunt, coarse and laconic; and yet other pause and digress near constantly. Taking that away may make things move more smoothly, but you can easily end up making your characters sound too similar, and that’s just bad for the story. Your given examples are clearly ones in which slimming down is desirable or necessary, but that’s not always the case.

    In an odd way, it comes back to what I think is the defining literary divide of the past century: Hemingway people versus James people. Neither is an absolute camp, and you can love or hate both, but I think that there is a disconnect between people who value elegant simplicity above all else in their writing (sometimes to the point of needlessly bland reductionism) and those that prize literary sophistication (sometimes to the point of suffocating pretentiousness).

    Maybe I’m just rambling, but this feels relevant.

    P.S. The blogging gods seem to hate comment editing. I don’t know why. It makes me sad.

  15. J.H.M: Actually, we’re on the same page. I completely agree we should leave in speech mannerisms, whether the speaker is excessively polite, blunt, course, or laconic. I didn’t say we should take any of that out. But of we take out extraneoous words as I proposed, we can better see the character’s speaking quirks. We better absorb who he is.

  16. in my stories, i let the conversations go and fix much in rewrites. i reduce the actual lines, as suggested, but breaking up the dialogue with action helps the most. in addition, i have found it best to add action that is more than incidental and a device to break up the log dialogue. the action itself contributes to the telling of the story, or at least, add to the conversation. action can show how people speaking are reacting to what they hear, and so forth. you can even get the effect with background action and not the action of the one reacting. this article is great and i am glad i had a chance to read it.

  17. nealabbott: I certainly agree with your method. It’s exactly what I would propose, and I thank you for saying it so well.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I was relieved to read this article because my dialogue isn’t long. I like to get to the point. I haven’t written a book yet but I’m working on one and your article is a stress reliever for me. At least I know I’m doing something right. Thanks so much.

  19. Thanks for the great post! I think it´s a good advice, but I think sometimes the lenght of the dialogue is related to how your characters are: some of us are people of few words, and there are a lot of windbags too. Some word repetitiom might tell you the character is nervious. When a character is tellig something important he might repeat so the other character won´t forget. And a character in a hurry will cut his words to the roots.

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