I’ve been looking over some of my much-rejected early novels recently and discovered they have something in common with a lot of other unpublished fiction: way too much dialogue. They’re too LOUD. The characters need to shut up already and get on with the story.
And yet, in all the classic how-to writing books, we’re urged to put in, “more scenes! more dialogue!”
Here’s my theory of why that is: A lot of classic books on writing, like Strunk and White came out before the era of TV. They are full of warnings against the author intrusion and diary-like musings that come from imitating those wordy Victorian novels whose purpose was to fill as many long winter nights as possible.
But most contemporary writers—at least those not yet eligible for Medicare—had their first exposure to fiction via movies and TV. Even if you were lucky enough to have parents who read books to you, the tele/screenplay format probably got cemented into your brain by constant exposure.
That means the stories in your head tend to scroll by like episodes of Law and Order, rather than chapters of The Last Days of Pompeii. Most contemporary writers don’t need warnings against addressing readers as “O Best Beloved,” or waxing poetic on the subject of French pastries or cracked gold bowls.
But we do need to beware of writing novels that read like bloated screenplays.
One of my favorite handbooks on writing is agent Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages . (I was disappointed that in Nathan Bransford’s recent post on the most important books for writers, none of the 200+ comments mentioned Lukeman. I think he's a must-read for anybody trying to publish fiction these days.)
Lukeman's book gave me my first wake-up call about overdone dialogue. He wrote, "Dialogue is a powerful tool, to be used sparingly…it is to the writer what the veto is to the President…if you overuse it, people will resent you for it."
Whoa! I’d been bullying my readers without realizing it.
I thought about his caveat last week when I read a story in the New Yorker that had no dialogue at all: The TV by Ben Loory. Seemed a little weird--but the next day Publisher’s Lunch announced Mr. Loory had sold a collection of short stories for some serious cash. (Yeah. A short story collection. Who does that? Congratulations, Ben!)
So is dialogue going out of style completely? Perhaps with the MFA set, but I'm pretty sure commercial books still need a healthy dose. However, we need to be increasingly careful it's not over-done.
I believe the newbie’s tendency to create overly chatty characters may be why so many agents caution against opening a novel with dialogue. The problem may not be the opening line itself, but the amount of blabbering that follows. If your opening pages look like a script, they probably won’t be read.
It’s not a bad idea to do another run-through of your WIP, keeping an eye out for these dialogue no-nos:
1) Big chunks of dialogue with no action. Don’t turn your characters into talking heads. Move them around. Let them do something. Feel. Think. You don’t have any actors to do this work for you.
2) Too many unattributed lines. If the reader loses track of who’s talking and has to go back and puzzle it out, she gets annoyed.
3) Reader-feeder: This is when your characters tell each other stuff they already know in order to fill in backstory for the benefit of the reader. “As you know, Bob, our grandfather was bitten by a radioactive spider…”
4) Showing off: Yes, that ten page scene shows how perfectly you’ve captured the patois of young stockbrokers in their native habitat, but does it actually further the plot?
5) Too much realism. Yeah, in real life, people do have these conversations:
"Gonna go to the…?"
I'm bored already, aren't you? This is why we read fiction.
For more tips on writing dialogue, Roni Griffin at Fiction Groupie had a great post on dialogue last Friday--a must read.