An Insanely Simple Trick for Tightening Your Dialogue

An Insanely Simple Trick for Tightening Dialogue

Dialogue is essential in storytelling. It’s what brings characters to life and drives the plot forward. However, it’s important to be mindful of tightening dialogue by cutting out any unnecessary filler that can bog down the conversation.

I adore good dialogue. Funny, snappy, insightful, punchy—love it.  It’s also a ton of fun to write (whenever I finish a day’s writing session with a comparatively massive word count, you can pretty much bet I was working on a scene with lots of dialogue). I would say most of us find dialogue relatively easy to write. After all, unlike many of the elements of good fiction, dialogue is something we experience in real life every single day.

Sometimes, however, real-life dialogue experiences can lead us astray. Often, in an attempt to make dialogue sound as realistic as possible, we can end up inserting unnecessary fillers. I like to call these authorial “throat-clearings.” Sometimes we write these on purpose, but sometimes we write them just because we’re in the process of easing into the discussion and figuring out what our characters have to say. These fillers can come in a variety of flavors, but perhaps the most egregious is that of introductions and subsequent small talk.

Do’s and Don’ts of Tightening Dialogue: Not This

For example, maybe you have somebody introduce Jake and Jody at a party.

“Jake, this is Jody. Jody, Jake.”

“Oh, howdy, Jake, nice to meet you.”

“Same to you, Jody. Isn’t this a great party?”

“Sure is, and how about this fantastic weather we’ve been having?”

Not exactly scintillating, is it? Worse, it does nothing to illustrate character and even less to advance the plot. In the vast majority of instances, there will be absolutely no reason for this kind of throat-clearing. Cut it out ruthlessly.

Do’s and Don’ts of Tightening Dialogue: This

If you need to indicate characters were introduced or exchanged small talk, then just tell readers that.

“Jake and Jody were introduced and exchanged a few pleasantries.”

That’s all you need. Your dialogue will be tighter as a result, and readers will be relieved they can get back to the meat of the story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How are you tightening dialogue in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Small talk (hate it), characters informing each other about things the reader already know about, things that aren’t interesting enough, that doesn’t add to characterization, add tension or further plot… I guess there are more that I can’t come up with right now. But like you I LOVe writing dialogue, Could write an entire novel with just that. :)) Actually one time someone who read an early draft of a scene said it read like a movie script 😀 Just dialogue and little else. it became better after that but it’s still the thing I love writing the most.

  2. I’ve always thought it would be fun to write a story that *was* entirely dialogue.

    • I’ve written a couple flash fiction stories that are entirely dialogue, no narrator, no tags, several characters.

      I have other stories that are “unilateral dialogue”. In these, I have only one side of the conversation on, and the reader can infer the other side by the MC’s responses.

  3. I hate small talk in real life as well.

  4. I’m not too crazy about it myself. :p

  5. In my memoir events of a previous scene might turn up in dialogue with a therapist or someone else. Sometimes I share the entire dialogue if it moves the plot along and the dialogue will bring forth new revelations. Other times I shorten it. I’m writing first person so I’ll think, okay I’ll give him the two minute version of my past because I want to get to new territory. I might record how the person seems to be responding to the two minute version, and then go into new dialogue.

  6. As a reader, I’ve always liked timelines that dip and dunk around. Inter-weaving dialogue that shares memories of previous events with a present-day scene can be a great way to do this, so long as we’re not info-dumping.

  7. Thanks for this. BTW, wouldn’t a novel that is entirely made up of dialogue be a play?

  8. I love a novel with punchy dialogue. Connie Willis’ Bellwether is such a great read for that reason.

  9. @Cayman: Not necessarily. For example, I believe the book Vox (which I haven’t read) is presented almost entirely in dialogue.

    @Cynthia: Love the title!

  10. I only enjoy reading (or writing) small talk when it isn’t really small at all. Small talk can propel character development, properly framed. If it’s not load-bearing, though, it grates like nails on slate.

  11. You raise a great point, in that small talk can sometimes we used to good effect to subtly churn up issues that are floating around under the surface.

  12. Thank you for your excellent snippet of advice on dialogue (I could use a book on the topic). My novel was sent back by an editor with the request that I improve dialogue. I was surprised that was her issue until I read the book out loud. It was written grammatically correct, and therein lies the problem. People don’t talk like that! It took great effort, but I persevered, rewrote and sent it back to her. Her response was that it was MUCH improved, dialogue was smooth and flowed naturally. But tension needed to be amped up. Would you consider addressing that topic? My three book series genre is Romantic Suspense.

  13. We should also remember to avoid “maid and butler dialogue”, when characters talk about things they should already know, for the “benefit” of the reader.

    “As you know, John is off to college, Maggie.”

    “And, as you know, he should be arriving on Thursday afternoon, Brandon.”

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