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But newer, unpublished writers often get carried away.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.