Fiction Dialogue 201


Ciao, SEers! My first post for Story Empire was called Fiction Dialogue 101, and it was actually our site’s inaugural post… all the way back on August 31, 2016.

I thought it was time for the next class, so welcome to Fiction Dialogue 201, where the concepts are slightly more advanced, but I promise you they’re just as easy to master.

Eliminate Fillers

Often when we speak, we’re unprepared to complete our thoughts. So we begin our sentences with filler words or even meaningless syllables while our brain prepares a cogent argument or even a simple greeting. In person, it’s easy to tune these fillers out. But in fiction, they are beacons that stand out as crutch words, placeholders, sloppy writing, or (God forbid) padding to increase our word count. Unless you have a character who stammers or specifically uses a crutch filler as his signature phrase, these can and probably should be cut. You may think they add realism to your dialogue, but they’re really just slowing down your reader.

Solution: Just cut them. You won’t miss them.

Bob Already Knows

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is following advice to the letter. They’re told that they shouldn’t have big info dumps as exposition and should write any info readers need as an exchange of dialogue. Then they have passages that read something like, “As you know, Bob, Carmella hates milk and refuses to drink it. So she couldn’t have been the one who spilled it on the table.”

Well, if Bob already knows, there’s no reason for that conversation to happen.

This is an example of a writer trying to follow good advice, but making another mistake in the process. No, you don’t want to have pages of exposition. But you don’t want people to tell Bob things he already knows about Carmella. Not only will it annoy Bob, it will annoy your readers.

Solution: Work the information into dialogue with characters who don’t know this information.

What’s the Point?

You’ve just crafted the best dialogue exchange of your life. The banter is fast-paced, the barbs are sharp. Both characters got in a lot of zingers, but not too many. It’s a balanced exchange. And it’s smart. You’d pat yourself on the back if you were flexible enough to do it without pulling something.

But as you read it for the fourth time (and yes, you’ve read it four times because you can’t stop smiling—it’s that good) you start to notice something. There’s no point to this exchange. It doesn’t advance the plot. The characters don’t go anywhere, they don’t discover anything. They don’t grow or change in any manner. Readers don’t learn anything about them. We don’t even learn anything about the setting. They’re literally in a room we know well, and they don’t move or interact with anything. The comedy wasn’t necessary to break up some dramatic moments. It’s the best writing of your life, and it’s totally pointless. What do you do about it?

Have you heard the phrase “kill your darlings” before? Yes, it’s usually reserved for a phrase or a sentence, but it can be applied to an entire passage. In this case, strike the entire run of dialogue. It will only confuse your reader. They may enjoy it, but it doesn’t apply to the plot and they’ll wonder why it’s there and keep thinking back on it, looking for meaning they’ll never find.

Solution: Keep the passage in a different file. You may be able to use it in a sequel or in a marketing piece. If the work really is that good, it wasn’t wasted effort and can be repurposed elsewhere.

The Loudest Words Should Be The Ones That Aren’t Said

Ask twenty writers what the most important part of fiction is and you’ll get twenty different answers. But if you ask twenty writers if subtext is an important part of fiction, you’ll get twenty affirmatives. Take this example:

She smiled at him as he walked in the door. Her arms were up to the elbows in soapy water as she scrubbed the dinner dishes. “I can’t believe Daddy kept you late again. You work too hard. I’ll talk to him for you.

“That’s not necessary.”

“I couldn’t make the kids wait for dinner any longer. But I waited. Our dishes are in the oven.”

“I’m having an affair,” he said, “and I want a divorce.”

“I hate you and I’ll ruin you!” she screamed and threw a half-washed plate at his head. “You’ll never see your kids again! You’ll wish you’d never met me! You’ll wish you’d never been born! Get out! GET OUT!”

That’s pretty explicit, right? Not much left to the imagination. But consider the following, with only a minor change.

She smiled at him as he walked in the door. Her arms were up to the elbows in soapy water as she scrubbed the dinner dishes. “I can’t believe Daddy kept you late again. You work too hard. I’ll talk to him for you.

“That’s not necessary.”

“I couldn’t make the kids wait for dinner any longer. But I waited. Our dishes are in the oven.”

“I’m having an affair,” he said, “and I want a divorce.”

She slowly placed a dish on the rack then picked up a butcher knife. “I don’t think I heard you correctly, darling, what with all the banging and clanging these dishes are doing as I’m slaving away for you.” She ran her thumb along the blade until it gave a metallic hum. “And my head’s a little woozie because I skipped dinner.” She pointed the knife at him, rather low, then toward the table. “Why don’t you get our meal then join me and we can discuss whatever it is you’d like. I assume it has to do with something that happened at Daddy’s company today?” She took a seat at the head of the table—his usual chair—and waited for him to bring the dishes from the oven.

So, yes, subtext does require more words and less actual dialogue than direct conversation. But it can say so much more if you give it a chance. And the indirect implications are a lot more powerful than the blatant words, anyway.

Solution: Use subtext rather than direct dialogue to relay overt messages.

There you have it. Fiction Dialogue 201. Master these principles and you all get an A+. Do you have a favorite technique that you use in your work? Let’s talk about it below.

Staci Troilo Bio

63 thoughts on “Fiction Dialogue 201

  1. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 4: Dialogue | Story Empire

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  3. Two wonderful examples to bring the points home. That second one with the subtext was so gripping I was a little disappointed it ended there…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank God that’s an error that gets edited out (usually) before the author uploads. Or we just aren’t reading those authors. Either way, I’m glad to see that error fall by the wayside, though I have come across it in some of my editing clients. But that’s how you learn, right? We’ve all written our first novel at some point. If an editor doesn’t point out the problems, you can bet a reviewer will.

      Thanks, Diana.

      Liked by 2 people

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  5. Mainly I thought this good and sensible and I recommend you for this post but I decided to go out into the garden and wander up and down without having completed the short (positive) reply I was going to leave. strolling up and down and thinking on the dialogue I have read and perhaps because I get involved with the occasional play as well as writing novels. I thought to myself, Stephen King would disagree with you, Aaron Sorkin would disagree as would Charles Dickens and Thomas Harris. Yet I still think essentially you are right but it depends how good you are at dialogue. If you are good, forget convention, those that do it well do not need the rules. Those that do dialogue badly heed these ideas well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s always best to understand the “rules” before you try to break them. Once you understand them, it’s fine to break them because you do so for a reason. Presumably a good reason, then it’s effective (and maybe even brilliant) when you do.

      I doubt the masters are reading this blog for tips. If they are, I’m overjoyed. These posts are more to help writers earlier in their journey. Hopefully, they find some usefulness in these tips. But there’s also usefulness to the adage that all rules are made to be broken.

      I hope you had a nice stroll in the garden. It sounds like you had nice weather for it. I had rain where I live the day this was posted, but it’s finally nice here today.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sadly it is rather cold here tonight. Spring has brought the apple, pear and cherry blossom and so the garden is wreathed in pale pinks, lilac whites and vivid reds but it is chilly and despite the clement weather a warm blanket is required were you to sit outside. Ah, Staci, perhaps you do yourself down and many masters are drawing wisdom from your posts. I do think that you give good advice.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m sorry your weather took a turn. Perhaps a nice beverage by your window so you can still enjoy the view?

        That’s very kind of you to say. Thanks. We all try to be helpful. I suspect none of the current big name NYTBSAs follow this blog, but if any of them do read these posts, I wish they’d leave a comment. As it is, I enjoy chatting with those of you who do write us notes. I’ve made some lovely friendships through the blogosphere and hope to continue to do so.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Fantastic example of using subtext effectively. The first scene is good, but the subtest brings it to a whole new level.

    The “as you know” info dumps are comical and rather insulting to the reader. I read one recently somewhere that read, Mother growled, “Well, it’s about time! You’ll have to reheat your own damn dinner. As you know, we eat as a family at 6:00 p.m. promptly every night.” 🤣

    I really wanted the son to respond, “Thanks for the info, Mom. As you know, I’m frequently tardy.”🤣🤣🤣

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a great post, Staci. Subtext really adds that extra layer that pulls me deep into a story. All wonderful suggestions that make the dialog flow. I like the idea of saving deleted passages, I don’t always remember to do that.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. An excellent post, Staci. I totally agree about subtext and your example shows how it brings so much more emotion and layering into the scene. Also, I loved your suggestion to save cut passages we were proud of to use in marketing. Great idea! Thank you for sharing!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post. I love subtext, but don’t do enough of it. I see someone mentioned liars up above. I also like writing those. Oh, and I’m the guy who writes a lot of verbal tics into some characters’ dialog. (On purpose)

    Liked by 2 people

  10. What a great post, Staci, thank you! I use dialogue a lot and need to learn to include more subtext. Your example illuminates just how important it can be. Very helpful post! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Very interesting post, Staci, and a lot to consider. Love the subtext section and will have to keep an eye out for ways to use that better. Not sure I’ve ever been that subtle, but I am sure I like it. And I really hate the “Bob already knows” kind of stuff, so hope I’ve never done it. As for the filler words in dialogue, I do try to avoid them, but for certain characters, I use them, especially if they are hesitant about replying to someone or stalling for time to come up with a snappy comeback. That kind of thing. I know you aren’t supposed to, but I like the way it sounds, so I break this rule now and then. I do try to cut most of them. Just not all. But I’ll continue trying to be sure I don’t overdo it, honest. This is a fun post that’s got me thinking! Thanks! 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • You can always break a rule if you do so intentionally and know why you’re breaking it. That’s totally fine. It’s the unintentional breaking of rules that gets people into trouble.

      Glad you liked the subtext section and the post got you thinking. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  12. These are awesome examples, Staci, and you had me chuckling about annoying Bob.

    Loved your last example, too. Subtext always enriches a scene in my opinion. It’s something I’m constantly tweaking throughout my stories to bring the most to exchanges between characters. Dynamite post today!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. The second example is much better. It shows me what she is thinking and feeling. The other is too abrupt.

    I love writing dialogue and I tend to overdo it at times. Using subtext certainly breaks the monotony and makes a richer story.

    Liked by 2 people

    • If I understand your meaning, that’s one of my favorite things to do, too. I love to write the internalized no followed immediately by the spoken yes (or vice versa).

      Thanks, Harmony. For the comment and the reblog.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: Fiction Dialogue 201 | Story Empire | Welcome to Harmony Kent Online

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