Thursday, May 17, 2012

Does Your Dialogue Move Your Story?

I recently took several pages from my work in process to a critique meeting.  They are a great bunch of writers, lots of fun, and intuitive.

I liked the scene, which had lots of dialogue and showed the characters moving and interacting in the sheriff’s office of a western town. It was more of a transitional scene between two scenes with lots of tension and drama.

For the most part everyone liked the writing, but one member said that for him it fell flat and didn’t seem to have the energy my stuff usually has.  He couldn’t put his finger on the problem, but I trusted his instincts.  We talked it out and we realized I had missed one of the key reasons we write dialogue—to move the story forward.

There were bits of information I needed to convey and there was a minor character (the sheriff), who need to be introduced.  Other than that, the scene was nothing more than pleasantries and chit chat—all stuff that didn’t need to be there. Once I deleted the greeting and introduction, coffee cups and seating, there wasn’t much left, nothing that couldn’t be reworked into another scene.

I’d forgotten that every chapter and every scene has to contribute to that story arc. And every chapter and every scene had to also contribute to the character’s arc. In a romance there are primarily two main character arcs and my scene did nothing to build toward my hero or heroine’s growth, either forward or backward.  There was nothing there to engage the reader which is why the scene felt flat to my friend.

Every bit of dialogue we write should be used to show character, mood, tension, conflict and growth.  It needs to contribute to the story through the characters, through back story or pacing.  My scene didn’t make anyone laugh or cry or scream. It didn’t raise any new questions and the only reason anyone would be turning pages would be to skip ahead.

I can usually find mistakes like this in other people’s work, but sometimes I just can’t see the forest for the trees. 


Tina Donahue said...

Good advice you received, Kathy. A long time ago I read that if you can chop a part of your story out and it doesn't change the plot/emotional build/whatever in the least, then it shouldn't have been in there to begin with. :)

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Tina,
I try not to get attached to what I write and I know these things, but I still forget. So I'm glad I have my critique group to keep me on track.

jean hart stewart said...

Excellent post. I recently screwed up almost a whole book by forgetting about POV. I got so intent on the plot. My editor had a fit. I couldn't believe when she pointed it out, but of course she was right.

Barbara Mountjoy said...

A good reminder. In this age where everything needs to come faster, faster, faster! there really isn't any time for the kind of easy prose we want to draw from real life. Yes, in real life, we'd have all the pleasantries and waste the half hour--but for a reader, it's not always necessary. I'm guilty, too!

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Jean,
I mess up POV too. I have a tendency to drift into omniscent POV and tell the story with a wide angle camera lens. Hopefully the more I write and study craft, the better I'll get at spotting mistakes like this in rewrites.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Barbara,
Great to see you here. Thanks for stopping by. If I wrote literary fiction I might be able to get away with more real-life prose, but I'm the same way when I read. I don't have time for the slow stuff and skip ahead to the "good-stuff." I guess that good stuff is what I need to get better at identifying as I write.

Cheryl Pierson said...

Great post. I actually don't have a lot of trouble with dialogue, but POV gave me fits and sometimes still does. I am like you about wanting to slip into the omniscient POV and tell it like that--I really do have to watch it.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Cheryl,
The nice thing about writing is that nothing is carved in stone. I think it was James Michner who said, "I'm a terrible writer, but a great rewriter." At least we all can fix our mistakes. And I think your dilogue is great!

Stormie Kent said...

Yes, I also slip into narrative a great deal. The problem is that I can't tell in my own writing that I have done so. Finding a critique partner was the best thing I've done.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Stormie,
Well, omniscent is a POV, it's just not used in romance much. It is hard though sometimes to keep it all straight when the words just want to come. Glad you have a good critique partner.