Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dialogue on point -- writing tip

Question: My writer's group says my dialogue is not on point. They tell me I need to "stop being repetitive" and to "get on with things." But isn't dialogue supposed to be written the way people really talk?

Answer: Yes and no. Dialogue should be written the way people really talk, but leaving out the boring parts. Most of what people say IS boring. Stick with what is important and tell (YES TELL) the rest in narrative.

For instance, take this story situation:

In Scene one, Sally’s brother John was in a 40-car pile up on the Interstate. He lies for hours, pinned in the car, then finally is picked up by helicopter and taken to Shock-Trauma. There he is rushed into surgery while (end of scene hook) a nurse tosses his wallet to the ward clerk, yelling, “Call his next-of-kin.”

In scene two: Sally, having learned the news, hangs up the phone, rushes out of the house and meets her neighbor, Paul, a friend of John’s. Here’s scene two:

Sally hung up the phone, grabbed her jacket and headed for the door, frantic to get to the hospital and find out how badly John was hurt. (Opening Hook, and there's no need to play out the hospital person giving her the news--the reader already knows that.) It wasn’t until she actually got into the garage that she remembered John had been driving her car the night before, because his was in the repair shop. (Character-building, shows confusion caused by the emergency situation.) Without a second thought for her damaged car (Character-revealing, shows her first concern is her brother’s life), Sally hurried out to the street and all but ran toward the bus stop.

Half a block down the street, Paul Anderson, a friend of John’s, put down his rake and caught up with Sally. “Where are you going in such a hurry? What’s wrong?” (Now in reality he would probably have said, “Hey, Sally. Wait a minute. I want to talk to you.” But that would not have moved the story forward. Dialogue should always move the story forward and it should be about something important). No small talk.

“It’s, John! He’s in the hospital.” Sally told Paul about the accident. (Narrative used. No need to repeat all the action about the 40-car pile-up, what the person on the phone told her, and John’s being pinned in the car for hours — the reader already knows that.) You have to tell the reader everything, but you only have to tell them once.

“No wonder you are upset. Come on, I’ll drive you.” Paul took off his gardening gloves and ran for his pickup. By the time he got the door open, Sally was already waiting inside.

“Hurry!.” Sally gave Paul a worried look. “I have to find out how he is.”

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