I posted yesterday’s article over at the AbsoluteWrite forums and got some questions about the three tips I laid out at the start. Specifically, I addressed this:

Douglass

I’m curious about your number one rule:

“Dialogue is the last resort of the desperate storyteller.”

It seems in conflict with two trend of novels: 1) more and more dialogue with each passing generation. 2) the more popular the novel, the more dialogue it contains.

I touched on that in the paragraph that followed:

The first one mainly applies to screen and stage, since they are visual media and you have someone’s performance and action on screen to carry the scene when there is no speaking. On a page, the text is there whether it is dialogue or narrative, so the rule isn’t as hard and fast as it is for the screen, but in general, if you are falling back on dialogue to do the storytelling, then you need to re-examine your plot structure.

I got my start in screenwriting and I had gone to school for theatrical and film direction. That’s a guideline that exists for visual media.

That said, it’s easy to fall into the exposition trap, even when writing novels:

“Did you hear? Jacob, your brother, will be coming up from his home in Kansas to lecture at our son Chris’s college. I’d like to offer the guest bedroom to him while he’s here, but I don’t want to hear you two playing Madden 2012 until 4AM like last time he came, at Christmas,” Alice said.

It’s clunky, and unnecessary. Most importantly, it doesn’t flow. That text is going to be on the page either way, but compare it to this:

“Jacob is coming to town,” Alice said. Brad held his tongue. The last thing he needed was a lecture about staying up until 4AM playing Madden 2012 with his brother at Christmas. “Chris is looking forward to his lecture.”

“Why would a math major be attending a lecture on paleontology?” Brad asked.

“‘Because it’s his uncle and he never sees him’ isn’t good enough?” Alice poured a cup of coffee and passed it to Brad.

Brad sipped his coffee. “I’ll clean the guest room,” Brad said. Alice looked at Brad sharply. “And we won’t play Madden. Not much. At least not past 2.”

The word count is a little higher, but this is just off the top of my head (so, in the strictest sense I am breaking my own rule, but the spirit of the rule remains in that I’m not using the dialogue to convey everything). The dialogue communicates more about their relationship and how they relate to one another, rather than conveys the raw facts. The dialogue is pulling double duty in parts like: “Why would a math major be attending a lecture on paleontology?” We learn that Brad is attentive enough to know what his son is studying but doesn’t understand why he would be interested. In fact, the facts learned (Chris studies math, Jacob is a paleontologist) are actually the least interesting parts of that comment.

When Brad jumps to “I’ll clean the guest room” without explicit prompting, we understand that the subtext of Alice’s entire half of the exchange was: “I want Jacob to stay here.” When we look back at the things she says, they all lean in that direction without her coming out and saying it, which is another clue about what kind of relationship Alice has with Brad.

If it’s crucial to cut word counts, the important bits of the conversation can be boiled down to: “Jacob is coming to town.” followed by, “I’ll clean the guest room.”

“Jacob is coming to town,” Alice said.

Brad sipped his coffee. The last thing he needed was another lecture about how he and his brother had played Madden 2012 until 4AM at Christmas, so he decided to nip the discussion in the bud. “I’ll get the guest room cleaned.”

The essentials are still there, and we keep the big clue about their relationship: Brad understands Alice enough to know why she is bringing up Jacob’s visit without her needing to say it.

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