Purposeless Dialogue

I am spending an inordinate amount of time writing crap today for my first novel Phoenix Rock. I met the daily word count goal for National Novel Writing Month. That month is now in progress, so if you stick around long enough, I can bore you senseless with my writer’s angst and discussion of the “process” ad nauseum. On the other hand, it might be a nice break from my feminist chest-thumping (ow, ow) and the exploitation of my many maternal and human flaws.

There are some things that I write well. Dialogue is not one of them. I spend a lot of time trying to remember punctuation rules and a lot less time determining if the dialogue I just wrote actually has any bearing on the story. Here’s a gem I just regurgitated:

“Hey Meg – can you get me a refill?” A deep, gravelly voice called back to her through the server’s window. Lily must have run to the back, the coffee pot emptied in her absence.

“Sure John, I’ll get another pot started – leaded, right?” Meg leaned forward to see John’s tired, gray face topped off with the grungy John Deere hat.

“What other kind is there?” He shuffled back to the table, chuckling at his own joke.

Believe me when I tell you, this conversation has no relevance to the story I’m writing, except to establish that the characters are in a restaurant, which I did, by starting the paragraph with “In the restaurant”. I’m a fan of spare writing and we all know that normal everyday dialogue runs more like this:

“Hey, uh Meg – can you maybe get me a refill, if you got a moment, darling?” A deep, gravelly voice called back to her through the server’s window. Lily must have run to the back, the coffee pot emptied in her absence.

“Um, sure John, I’ll get like another pot started, okay – leaded, right?” Meg leaned forward to see John’s tired, gray face topped off with the grungy John Deere hat.

“Uh-huh. What other kind is there?” He shuffled back to the table, chuckling at his own joke.

Again, it doesn’t add to the story and is awful to read. Like, you know what I mean? So this is the challenge before me right now. How do I make spoken words count, have added value and be engaging for the reader? I know the story I’m telling – I just don’t know how to make dialogue purposeful.

Like anything else, when I am in need of knowledge, I start digging for resources. I listened to this podcast today – useful for grammar reminders while writing dialogue. There were some good tips at Writer’s Digest by Scott Francis and James Scott Bell to think about. I’m also checking in with some bloggers who post their fiction, like Pete Armetta, Nett Robbens (she writes steamy stuff, but I just read for the dialogue, really), and there are some great reminders from Rebecca at WriteRight. I am also getting a book to hone my skills when offline: Writing Great Fiction – Dialogue by Gloria Kempton, while resisting emphatically, the “also recommended” Writing Fiction for Dummies. Screw you, Amazon.

For now, John, Meg and the whole gang at Phoenix Rock will have to keep their traps shut. I’m trying to write, dammit.

24 Comments on “Purposeless Dialogue

  1. I’m pretty sure dummies can’t write fiction… not the readable kind, anyway. I admire you for taking on this challenge. It sounds like running a marathon… intense and painful and exhausting but with such incredible rewards. Sounds like you’ve got the dialogue research well underway. Best of luck and I look forward to further updates.

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    • Thanks for the good wishes. It is surprisingly manageable in terms of meeting the daily word count goal. The challenge for me is that I have not written much fiction, so I will be getting stuck down the road. Turning off the editor in my head is the hardest part.

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  2. I love writing dialogue. And I always try to remember to let the dialogue carry itself and to move quickly. If your characters are doing what they’re supposed to be in your storytelling the dialogue will take care of itself without you having to be overly descriptive or self-conscious about inserting it. Nice to hear you have some angst, at least I’m not the only one! 🙂

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  3. Hmmmm. Dialogue is the devil. I talk a good game, but when it comes to writing it, yeah…no. I practice and still, yeah…no. I can’t stand to hear characters on TV or in movies say yeah…no. It’s even more annoying to read it. 🙂 I’ll be sure to check out those resources. Thanks!!
    btw- I decided to write in first person, it’s really hard not to use the personal pronoun I in every other sentence…what was I thinking? should I change it to the squirrel’s point of view?

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    • “I scrambled across the street, feeling the whoosh of the big metal machine rush by me. But my nuts were still there.”

      I’m getting a little squirrely, a little nuts, so probably not the best person to run it up the telephone pole with. I’m sure we’ll enjoy your tail regardless of the POV.

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        • I wish I could be more helpful, but I think after the last couple of days, I’m just spent. Hope to regain some sense of focus soon. A sense of humor is definitely a necessary tool in a writer’s kit.

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  4. I always read dialog out loud to make sure it sounds natural.
    Good luck on your writing challenge. I wish I had such commitment.

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    • You make a REALLY good point and one that I think applies to not just the dialogue, but anything you’ve written. Many times I’ve snarked to myself “awkward much?” after reading some run on monstrosity I’ve written. I also think if you have to take 4 breaths before you get to the end of a sentence, it is WAY too long. Thanks for bringing this up!

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  5. I am not participating in the challenge as I am just starting to take myself seriously as a writer, haha.

    Anyway, I find your writing-style so captivating, yet every time I read your posts I sense so much insecurity. How is that possible?

    It’s like what Pete says, as long as you don’t overwrite and only stick to what your characters are supposed to be doing, the story will keep a straight line.

    Guess all I want to say is that it’s fascinating how such a talented writer can be so insecure about her skills. Maybe you are just a great writer, but you overthink it. Maybe you should let your talents do the work? 🙂

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    • I appreciate your kind words. I think insecurity comes with the territory. It’s a big deal to put yourself out there, as you well know. I have only been blogging since the beginning of the year. This is my first attempt at a novel. While the great feedback encourages me, I know I could be better. You have a point, though. Sometimes getting it right means getting out of your own way and seeing where things take you.

      I would also point out that writing a post for this blog, which is usually 400-700 words can take me anywhere from 2-4 hours, depending on the subject. You can only imagine how hackneyed things start out. The challenge for doing the novel is to keep writing without editing myself constantly or else I simply won’t have time to meet the word count requirement for the challenge.So there’s going to be a lot of insecurity.

      The only thing I’m not insecure about is being open about my worries! There are a lot of writers/bloggers who experience much the same thing. By writing about it, we can help each other out, give each other ideas or simply know that we are not alone in our struggles.

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  6. How do you find time to blog when you’re writing a novel?!

    I think your post contains its own answer regarding dialogue. It’s like any other writing. You write it. In the case of this crazy NaNoWriMo, you write it and just keep on going, going, like the Energizer bunny. At some more sane moment, you come back and read it and rewrite it. Repeat. Repeat. Then let it sit for a while — hours, days, weeks, depending — read and rewrite again. Repeat. Continue until you come back to the way you wrote it the first time. This system works for all my other writing.

    Like you, I’m a novice at fiction and dialogue. But consider the plight of the poor newspaper reporter. You feel honor bound to get down the quote from the people in the news exactly as they said it, word-by-painful-word. Actual human speech can be totally incoherent. Amazing we communicate at all! As a reporter, I often wished I could edit my quotes to make them better. (Reporters are allowed some leeway to ignore the “um’s” and to correct bad grammar, so as not to make the news source look like a fool, but that’s a very limited license for very minor corrections.)

    As a reporter, when the quotes become too long and incomprehensible, I resorted to simplification. That is, I removed the quote marks and abandoned the quote. Instead, I paraphrased. Then I sent it to an editor and it was his problem.

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    • I discovered that I can do a lot of writing if I ignore my husband, turn my child over to the public school system, skip meals and showering and put off anything important that needs to be done, for as long as I possibly can. It’s a procrastinator’s dream!

      Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? I really enjoy your writing style. Frankly, I think a lot of reporters write great fiction, because they know the devil is in the details.

      I think there might be an idea in “As a reporter, when the quotes become too long and incomprehensible, I resorted to simplification. That is, I removed the quote marks and abandoned the quote. Instead, I paraphrased.” Maybe since I get hung up on punctuation, writing the conversation without quotes would be less inhibiting. I think I’ll try that during my writing session tonight.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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