Show, Don’t Talk

As any reader of commercial fiction knows, dialogue dominates the proceedings. Up to 90 percent of the content of bestsellers consists of characters discussing the charged situation they find themselves in. Dialogue is a frothy form of narrative, and that suits the mood of the weary commuter or squinting beachgoer just fine. Light reading to pass the time: that is a tried and true formula for success.

When that same reader decides to write his own book, it is not surprising that he emulates that style. Dialogue is easy to write, after all. It suits the time needs of many hobbyists, since a few pages can be ripped off in a matter of minutes. It also can be produced even when a person is worn out after a day of work. She can read the results on the weekend, when she has a block of free time, and discover: hey, this stuff is pretty good. 

You may, however, forgive John Grisham for not quaking in his boots just yet. As anyone in any other field of endeavor knows, a prize easily won may not be esteemed as highly by others. Any author needs to put her work in context. I have had conversations in which the person I was talking to somehow felt the office manual she had written was in the same league as the novel I was editing. By way of analogy, would you regard chatter in a supermarket aisle as equivalent to a Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk at the 92nd Street Y? Of course not. 

While office mates can get away with strange conflations of relative values, you have a tougher audience. The person reading your book has likely read dozens of books in your field. Are you really matching up with your favorite author? Entertaining a reader is hard work. 

A fictional conversation works best when it discusses either a plot event that just happened or an event about to happen. In other words, dialogue usually does not drive a story. You need to walk the talk—and that means devising a plot in which the characters are more than armchair quarterbacks. Sure, they do a lot of talking—deep inside a mine in Uganda. Or in a back aisle in WalMart while they’re stuffing sock packs inside their coat liners. Put them in danger first, then see what they have to say as the missile is about to launch.

Exercise: Review the stretches of dialogue in the manuscript. After each one, write down, in one sentence, what the conversation was essentially about. That is a plot point. When you have finished, read down your list and see what your story is really accomplishing. If too many conversations revolve around the same plot points, you need less talk and more doing.  

“A lot of good arguments are spoiled by some fool who knows what he is talking about.” 
—Miguel de Unamuno

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


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