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Dialogue, Part Three

This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.

I could go on about dialogue forever and a day, but at risk of keeping us mired in it for too long, the following focus points will be our last in this run of posts on dialogue.

Soapboxes Are For Soap, Not Speeches

Fortunately, this is not something I run into all that often as a beta reader, but it’s still worth addressing as it pops up just often enough to be problematic.

Not all literature has to work an angle, so to speak, but more power to you if you can craft an engaging work of fiction that also makes a reader consider their personal or political convictions. While attempting to do so, though, it can become tempting to have characters act as a mouthpiece for the author’s opinions, which can, in the worst cases, lead to actually three-hour long diatribes like the one featured in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Where these speeches are concerned though: no one cares. Seriously. Be deft, not daft. Having your protagonist go on a journey of self-discovery that has them question their beliefs can be done deftly. Beating your readers over the head with a hundred pages of monologue, however, is absolutely daft. We’re here for fiction, not a faculty congress.

If you’re reading your first draft and finding paragraph after paragraph of uninterrupted monologue (putting in occasional beats for your speaker to wipe sweat from their brow or adjust their tie doesn’t count as an interruption), you’ll lose readers in a hurry if you don’t take care of that during editing.

So check your text—are there places where characters are ranting and raving to themselves out loud just to prove a point? Is there a way this could be better presented via actual dialogue (not monologue), their actions, or the plot as a whole? If so, I recommend you give those other methods a shot. No one wants their readers’ shoes to become projectiles.

Characters Talk Among Themselves, Not Directly to the Reader

Anyone who’s checked out the About Me page will know I’m a fan of the Netflix original series, House of Cards. This might lead one to say, “Hey, well if characters aren’t meant to talk directly to the reader or audience, why is Frank Underwood allowed to do it?”

Those moments in the show are intentional breaks of the so-called fourth wall. That’s why. It is possible to have your narrator make side comments directly to the reader (especially if your storytelling style supports this), but this situations are exceptions, not the rule. As such, we’ll set aside purposeful breaks of the fourth wall for the remainder of this discussion.

Building on the anti-soapbox stance above, I think it’s important that we remind ourselves that characters are not simply vessels through which an author speaks directly to the reader. That is to say, don’t use them to get around the “show, don’t tell” mantra by having characters “tell” things to the reader that you feel would stand out too much if included in exposition.

I think this happens most often when writers want to make sure readers remember details from earlier on in the manuscript. An extreme case could look something like:

Len craned his head to the side. “Wait. Where are we going again?”

“The supermarket.”

“Why?”

“That’s where the superintendent last saw Davy.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Len rubbed his chin. “Why are we looking for Davy again?”

Jim threw his hands up. “We need to find Davy because he’s the only one that might know how to stop the disease from spreading or whatever.”

OMG. NO. STAHP. Any character’s goals should be absolutely apparent to the reader, but not like this. Oh, please, not like this.

If you have a character whose entire purpose is to act as a humping post for filling out your readers’ memories, you probably don’t need that character. Doing something like this can come across as extremely patronizing to a reader. In fact, most of them probably have better memories and deductive reasoning skills than one might want to give them credit for. Talking down to them through a cardboard cut-out like Len in the above scene is insulting. We have to trust our readers.

The examples need not be as extreme as the above. When editing my manuscript for EMPATHY, I found even simple quips that could have been considered reminders or “tells” to the reader. When checking your own dialogue for these, ask yourself whether 1) the character in question would actually deliver the line in question, 2) whether they have to deliver the line in question, and 3) whether the line actually serves the scene as a whole, or exists simply for the benefit of the reader.

Remember, the key is to not stir readers from the narrative dream. Reminding them that the author exists is a surefire way to have them start thinking about other things outside the scope of the book, which could eventually pull them away.

WOT IN TARNATION R U DOIN’ W/ THAT DIALECT?

Nothing grinds my gears like some overdone dialect. Some writers—thinking they have to really “capture” a manner of speaking—will dive headfirst into contractions, abbreviations, purposeful misspellings, and slang-stacking. Authenticity is one thing, but keeping an eye out for readability is paramount.

Think of your manuscript as a dish of… whatever. Chicken. Some sort of chicken dish with lemon spritzed on it or something. You give it a taste and think to yourself, “Gee, this is great, but I bet pepper would really help round out the flavor profile.”

How much pepper do you put on?

You put on just enough, hopefully. You “season to taste” as it were.

Think of dialect as peppering your manuscript to taste. Let’s analyze and compare two lines of dialogue below, one laden with dialectal indicators, and another that includes them without dumping an entire shakers’ worth of pepper onto the page.

“Told ’em y’all won’t gon’ be fixin’ to help. Might’swell have y’all run up there, other side of the hill, chasin’ cats.”

“I told ’em y’all wouldn’t be fixing to help. They might as well have y’all running ’round the far side of a hill chasing cats.”

That first line is so full of metaphorical pepper that I’m still metaphorically sneezing. The second? Well, without context it still might be hard to tell what the speaker is really getting at, but are you still reading it with an accent of sorts? You are? Is it more readable than the first line? It is?

That’s because the second line is peppered to taste.

Granted, we’ve all got different preferences where taste is concerned, but if readability is a goal of yours (I don’t know why it wouldn’t be), try to keep in mind the diverse backgrounds and flavor tolerances of your readers.

Summary

Whew. There you have it. We made it through dialogue for now. We’ll have more in the Write With Me series next week, but in the meantime, feel free to revisit your manuscript and check for soapboxes, winks to the reader, and overpeppered pages. Your readers will thank you later.

Want to join the conversation? You can find me on Twitter or shoot me an email here.

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