Two-year-olds are awesome little balls of angst and joy. It’s either all happiness or all misery for them. I just spent the last two days babysitting my youngest grandson, who is two, while my daughter, a well-known musician, was in the recording studio. The dialogue between me and my grandson went something like this:
Me: “Would you like to eat dinner?”
2 yr old: “No dinner!”
Me: “Do you have to potty?”
2 yr old: “No Potty!”
Me: “Would you like ice-cream?”
2 yr old: “No ice-cream!”
It doesn’t matter what you ask the child–he is currently hardwired to say “NO!” to everything, no matter how badly he really wants it. Everything is high drama and terrible tragedy for him–and his gut reaction to every question is driven by his newly acquired “power of the NO,” a super-power that regularly goes to his head.
Unlike the two-year-old with his simple cut-and-dried answer for everything, we authors have a large amount of backstory that we are just sure the reader must know every minuscule detail of, and in order to avoid info dumps, we write conversations to do just that, so that the reader will not lack for information.
But this is where we authors need to exercise the power of the NO. It is also one of the hardest things we do–trying to decide what is crucial to the advancement of the plot and what could be done without. I am currently looking quite closely at one of my manuscripts, and I may cut an entire chapter that is only background. It’s awesome background, and I love this background–but when looked at with an independent eye, it doesn’t do anything but stall the forward momentum of my book.
Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those can become info dumps laced with useless fluff and are sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. This is referred to, in the industry, as bloated exposition.
When the dialogue is trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of unnatural and awkward things.
“Remember the first day at the academy? We showed up wearing identical uniforms. I was so humiliated. I hated you for that. I didn’t speak to you at all until Commander Janson forced us to be partners in the biology lab, but I managed to get us through that with all A’s. But look at you now, you lucky dog. You are fortunate enough to be my second in command.”
“I know, sir. I despised you too, especially when you made me do all the dirty work, cutting up that alien amphibian. And you took all the credit for it. But now here we are, the best of friends and in command of the finest ship in the fleet, the USS George Lucas. I really, really love being your flunky. It is just the awesomest gig ever.”
Probably not gonna happen. When two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking, it doesn’t seem remotely real. The only time exposition works in a novel is when both the reader and the character being spoken to do not know the information being artfully dumped.
When reading, even dedicated readers will skip over large, unbroken blocks of words. Elmore Leonard said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I feel this goes double for dialogue.
Cut to the chase. In real life, you might want to talk at length about the small details, but most of the important information is dealt with right away, and the rest is just socializing. When I think of the novels I enjoy the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.
Consider a phone conversation at work or when you’re in a hurry, and a friend just had a car accident. Your friend has a story to tell, and you have questions. “Are you hurt? Can you drive the car? Do you need anything?” While the boss is glaring at the back of your head, you won’t ask if they had insurance or if your friend will sue (unless you work for a legal firm and you’re fishing for business.)
There’s another important reason to avoid fluff in your dialogue besides the fact it makes a book more enjoyable:
In the real world, Indies and self-publishers pay the costs to publish their works up front. In the ebook format, costs are minimal and it doesn’t matter, but a paper book by a new author that has to sell for more than $12.99 may not sell well. Remember, with a longer book, your costs are increased because until you’re established, you must purchase your own stock to sell on consignment in local book stores. You’ll also need to buy books for your table at trade shows, conventions, and at most book-signings. You’ll want to keep your cost as low as possible and still turn out a good book.
For an indie who writes fantasy, which tends to be longer books and is my genre, it’s most cost-effective for you to keep your work to between 90,000 and 120,000 words if you intend to print through CreateSpace, which prints my paper books. So, wise authors will avoid empty filler in their conversations at all costs.
Having said to keep it short, I know there are times when a character will have a long story to tell, and if it’s done right, it works. Usually, these are stories within stories, and they’re a bit tricky to do right. Deploy the facts, and go light on the fluff.
Remember, what worked in a Shakespeare monologue does not work in a dialogue between two people. Fictional dialogue is about give and take, meant to sound realistic but sharpened by the fact that each character needs something, and by the fact that their needs do not mesh. You won’t get two-page speeches if you remember to visualize your conversation.