The late Elmore Leonard advised writers to avoid writing the parts that readers tend to skip.
This is the third part in my series of posts about this subject. In case you missed my other posts, they focused on “Too Much Description” and “Transitions.” While conducting background for a third post, I discovered that some readers said they skip dialogue, which boggles my mind.
I love dialogue. I’m attracted to good dialogue in television shows and movies, and in my choices of fiction. In fact, I consider the dialogue that Mr. Leonard wrote to be top-notch.
I’ve written about dialogue before, in my posts “Talk to Me (a Dialogue about Dialogue)” and “I Like the Way You Talk (How Tarantino, Sorkin & Kevin Smith Won Me Over with Dialogue).” My favorite writers, for stage, screen or page, write dialogue that holds my attention. I am more likely to skip solid blocks of exposition or description (which I don’t skip, but still—) than I would dialogue. I suppose the main reason for my preference is that I was raised on television and movies, where all information is imparted through visuals and, of course, dialogue. Just like comic books. I am a product of my time. Most of the books they forced us to read in school—I’m looking at you now, Moby Dick— were boring and difficult to read. Too much like work.
I’m having trouble believing that there is a subset of readers out there who skip dialogue when they’re reading. I prefer to think that they skip pointless or boring dialogue. This is something I can wrap my brain around. Who doesn’t hate having their time wasted?
The trick is knowing when dialogue is actually pointless and boring. Too many writers have been influenced by such television series as Seinfeld, which always had its main characters engaging in conversation that seemed pointless and completely unrelated to the episode story line. But, these conversations were seldom boring.
I don’t think they were pointless, either. These conversations, whether they were about Superman, the proper way to button a shirt or what would be considered the opposite of eating tuna (Jerry said it was eating salmon, because they swim in the opposite direction), did help to deepen the characterization in the series (or, as deep as a shallow character gets, at any rate). There were times when this Seinfeldian conversation was my favorite part of an episode. Especially in episodes such as “The Chinese Restaurant”, where there was literally almost no plot.
I’m in the middle of Season 5 of The West Wing at the moment as well. While others have pointed out the Seinfeldian nature of some of the rapid conversations on this series, I agree with this assessment only in regard to the dialogue being entertaining. If Seinfeldian is used as a synonym for “pointless,” I must disagree. Even seemingly pointless conversations on this political drama all originate with characterization. The dialogue reveals the wit and intelligence of the characters speaking, as well as giving the viewer insight into personalities, values and relationships.
This makes conversations such as these, in the words of the late Roger Ebert, “load-bearing.” Ebert was talking about the many such seemingly-pointless conversations in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Like Ebert, I would challenge anyone to find a truly pointless scene or exchange of dialogue in this movie. Just for starters, the “Royale with Cheese” and “foot massage” scenes, both of which take place between Vincent and Jules prior to the first real action in the movie, are definitely load-bearing conversations.
When Vincent talks about his experiences in Europe, we learn quite a few salient facts about the John Travolta character. He is a world-traveler, for starters, who only recently returned to the States, meaning Jules is having to catch him up on some current events. He’s a drug-user, which sets up some later action. He’s an observant man, but maybe not very smart. The “foot massage” exchange between Vincent and Jules is both humorous and informative. It sets up Vincent’s later tension with Mia Wallace and introduces, off-screen, Marcellus and Mia both, as well as the unfortunate Tony Rocky Horror.
I challenge myself, as a writer, to look for the reason for including an exchange of dialogue between my characters. If the purpose is to highlight the awkwardness between a first meeting between two characters, it may seem right to include awkward and seemingly pointless conversation about the weather or the score of last night’s big game. We’ve all been trapped in awkward conversations that we couldn’t extricate ourselves from. Some of us may even have been responsible for the awkward conversations. However, if the meeting between characters isn’t intended to be awkward, then an exchange of hellos and weather reports should be avoided.
We all are guilty of exchanging pleasantries every day, but, as authors, we are also the chief editors in our fictional universes. Not even verisimilitude is a justification for a boring exchange of “Good morning” and “How did you sleep?” or any of the other things we all say every day because we are pleasant people. This sort of thing can, and should, be skipped in your fictional world.
Another type of dialogue that sometimes frustrates me is characters speaking in dialect. I’m not a fan, whether it’s Mark Twain or Uncle Remus doing it. To me, it often becomes as meaningless and easy to skip as passages written entirely in the fictional language of a goblin, orc or elf in a high fantasy novel.
I am from the American South, and I speak with a recognizable regional accent. I am prone to dropping my final ‘g’s when speaking. For instance, in the previous sentence, if I read it aloud, you’d probably hear my words as droppin’ and speakin’. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. My speech is also liberally sprinkled with ain’ts, y’alls and reckons and P-cans (rather than puh-kahns, as my wife pronounces the word pecans). At this stage of my life, I’m resigned to accepting the way I speak.
However, if you’re quoting me by writing the sentence “Ahm gone git sump’n to eat. Yuh wanna go wit me, darlin’?” I’m not going to be happy with you, no matter how accurate this phoenetic mockery may be. I would accept “I’m gonna get something to eat. You wanna go with me, darlin’?” although the unintentional parallelism of “gonna” and “wanna” bother me now. I’d change one of the words to its “to” form, such as “going to.” It’s as much about how it looks on the page as it is about communicating the essence of dialect. Likewise, I’d avoid using apostrophes in every location I dropped a “g.” It begins to look like something you’d see in a word balloon for Snoopy’s pal Woodstock.
It’s a matter of less being more. Sometimes it’s certain word usage that is indicative of a region. I’ve lived in several places in the United States, and have worked with people from all over. I worked with several New Yorkers who used the word youse much in the same way I use y’all. The use of the words soda, pop or Coke is definitely regional. Where I’m from, the phrase “I’m going to get a Coke,” might mean you’re going to get a soft drink, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll come back with a Coca-Cola. I’ve heard pop used in the West and Midwest. When I lived in Virginia, it seems like it was strictly soda. Also in the central part of Virginia, everyone referred to the trunk of the car as the boot and the pronounciation of certain words, such as about and house, seemed more Canadian than American.
Sprinkling in a few things like this will give the impression that your character is speaking in an accent without resorting to dialect writing tricks that could be potentially off-putting, insulting or even racist.
Listen to the voice in your head when you read the following pieces of dialogue.
“You want I should go find you a pen?”
“Let me top off that iced tea for you, Sugar.”
“Your future ain’t looking too bright, cher.”
“Sister, where you been?”
Chances are, you heard a character’s accent in just a single line of dialogue. If I’ve done my job correctly, you heard the accent I intended for you to hear without the written dialogue looking like a language you can’t interpret.
Similarly, you want to avoid all the “um”s and “er”s and other filler words that most of us use every day. They’re okay to use, sparingly. Just remember your job is to communicate, not replicate. If you need a dramatic pause in dialogue, sometimes a simple ellipses is enough, when an “um” or “er” could make your character seem less intelligent than you intended.
Once again, the genre of your story will affect your fictional dialogue as well. In a comic crime novel or a cozy, Seinfeldian conversation may be more acceptable than in a serious police procedural.
I could go off on an entirely new tangent and mention confusing dialogue attributions and the use of attribution adverbs unintentionally looking like Swifties (“The air is getting thinner up here,” Tom said, breathlessly). This is more about technique than about the dialogue itself, so I’ll skip that here, only to note that these things do affect the readability of your fiction, which could cause some skipping.
I think that’s about all I have to say on this subject. I want to close with a dialogue passage from a mystery I wrote years ago. In many ways, it reads like your typical Seinfeldian dialogue. However, it actually highlights a clue or two directly related to the story’s central mystery, so that this conversation becomes a callback later in the novel. Nothing says you can’t have fun and play fair with the clues at the same time.
* * *
She was silent again as she flipped through the pages of Kitty Remington’s calendar.
“You see this dot she made each month?” she said. “That’s when she expected her menstrual cycle to begin.”
“A period for a period.”
“The Monday number was her weight. Kept it under control, looks like.”
“So far we’re on the same page.”
“A couple of doctor’s appointments. No code there. Hmm. The ‘I.S.’ appears at regular intervals and never around the time of her period. There’s no one involved in the case with those initials, right?”
“Not yet. Although I’m not against easy.”
“Could be Izzy Stradlin.”
“A guitarist for Guns ‘n Roses. It was a joke.”
“Someday I will learn all about your misspent youth.”
“There aren’t many names that begin with ‘I.’ Ike. Ira. Isaac.”
“She could have been having an affair with Isaac Singer.”
“Who is that?”
“Polish-born author. Won the Nobel Prize for literature. In the seventies, I think. Except he always used his middle name. Isaac Bolshevik Singer. Something like that. Couldn’t have been Bolshevik.”
“You’re just showing off because you didn’t know who Izzy Stradlin is. You probably made yours up anyway. You realize your Polish author has the same initials as Irritable Bowel Syndrome?”
* * *
And so on. Reading my own stuff again, these years later, makes me cringe a little. And this conversation goes on for another hundred words or so, I’m not quite ashamed to admit. In addition to offering a genuine clue for the reader, this exchange also served to impart information about each of the characters and the relationship between the two. One character knows the names of the members of GNR. The other tries to namedrop Isaac Bashevis Singer (I know some things my characters don’t). These are potential clues to individual characterization, as well as a glimpse behind the curtain into how the author’s own mind works. Scary.
It strikes me now that these sorts of conversations were always occurring between Bernie Rhodenbarr and his best friend Carolyn Kaiser in Lawrence Block’s wonderfully funny Burglar series of comic crime novels. I think I was shooting for the same light tone.
As a lover of dialogue, it was difficult for me to accept that there exists a breed of reader that actively dislikes reading dialogue and frequently skips it. After some thought, I could conceive of the type of dialogue that probably should be skipped.
We should all avoid writing this type.