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Cut the Chit-Chat!

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So, let’s say you’re reading a book, and in the second chapter you come across the following piece of dialogue:

“Hello,” she said.

“Hi,” he replied. “I didn’t know you worked here.”

“Yes, for the past year,” she said.

“I live in the area and needed to pick up some butter,” he said.

“How’s traffic?” she asked.

“Light,” he said.

“Oh,” she said. “That’s good.”

“Yeah, I hate stop and go traffic,” he said.

“Me too,” she said. “The total is 89 cents.”

“Here’s a dollar,” he said.

“Here’s your change, have a good day,” she said.

If this piece of dialogue strikes you as being just slightly more exciting than watching paint dry, join the club. The only time this sort of interaction might be useful is if the writer is trying to suggest the two people are feeling very awkward, and are circling around some important issue they need to discuss but don’t know how to address. Even then, I’d say it’s overly drawn out.

Writers tend to confuse real life dialogue (which can be very boring indeed) with what is known in editing as “chit chat” in a book—excess talk that serves no real purpose. Your job as a writer is not to tell everything that happened between every character in your story. A story is always a selective retelling of events, and specifically, events that move the story forward.

The challenge to every writer is to constantly be thinking about what moves the story forward, and to dump everything that doesn’t serve that purpose. If you’re introducing two characters to each other, pick a scene, setting, or subject that relates to your story somehow.

Another problematic interaction:

The cell phone rang. The caller ID said “Louise.”

Jay picked up the phone. “Hello, Jay Fredrickson here.”

“Hi, this is Louise.”

“Hi, Louise, how are you?” he asked.

“Not bad, Jay. I’m calling about our appointment on Friday.”

Granted, this is exaggerated, but there are a few reasons why this is chit-chat. First, why bother mentioning it’s Louise on caller ID if you’re not skipping the introductions that follow? The only reason to mention the name ahead of time is so you don’t need to mention it in the call itself. Second, hellos are useless. Yes, in a real conversation, two characters might say hello. You as a writer have the license to jump past that and get right to the chase. Third, all phone conversations are dependent on the character picking up / answering the phone. There’s usually no need to tell the reader about the action. Finally, as the meat of the conversation is the Friday appointment, getting to that sooner keeps the momentum of your story going. Here’s what needs to go, and what can stay:

The cell phone rang. The caller ID said “Louise.”

Jay picked up the phone. “Hello, Jay Fredrickson here.”

“Hi, this is Louise.”

“Hi, Louise, how are you?” Jay asked.

“Not bad, Jay. I’m calling about our appointment on Friday.”

It’s rare that a novel or short story doesn’t have some dialogue, but dialogue is rarely what carries any novel or short story of quality. Less is better, always. I promise.

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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