Smart vs. Real Dialogue

By Todd Allen, @ToddAllenAuthor

One unfair stereotype which plagues writers is how we hear voices in our heads (like there’s something wrong with that?). What most non-writers fail to understand is when writers focus on their characters’ thoughts, actions, and feelings inspiration sometimes manifests as words and phrases in our minds. Often this includes lines of dialogue. And we writers, engrossed in the moment of discovery, type the exact words into our manuscripts. This isn’t a bad habit. I would argue it’s an essential part of the writing process. But those inspired words will need to be trimmed, because the dialogue we hear on the streets and in our heads usually doesn’t translate well into print.

Most writers agree words common to everyday speech like “well,” “you know,” “um,” and “like” don’t belong in written dialogue. But I’d argue many other words and phrases are just as unnecessary and dilute the line’s potency. Most prepositional phrases can be removed. Ditto to adverbs and most adjectives. Every word you can remove from a line of dialogue sharpens its impact. And as an added benefit, it will make your characters sound smarter.

“Brevity is the soul of wit.” – William Shakespeare

Don’t you wish you could instantly conjure the perfect reply to any insult thrown your way? Our characters can harness this superpower if we trim our dialogue of every spare word. They can benefit from our countless revisions, our careful scrutiny over each syllable they utter. They can appear smarter and more precise in their language than we could ever be. All because we transformed a first draft version of real dialogue into polished smart dialogue.

A critique partner and I once called this editing technique Dialogue Assassination, meaning we cut—or assassinate—any words in a line of dialogue which weren’t essential. The process can seem brutal, but the results can surprise you.

First Draft: “I don’t think you want to push that large red button marked LAUNCH.”

I can hear myself saying this exact sentence to a friend, or more likely, one of my sons. But on the page it seems wordy and diluted. First let’s sharpen the beginning. “Think” and “want to” aren’t necessary, and weaken the sentence. And the “I” is understood.

Revision One: “Don’t push that large red button marked ‘LAUNCH.’”

That’s better, but the line still doesn’t sound smart. Let’s tackle the second half. The word “button” is essential, but too many modifiers surround it. I’d argue to assassinate them all, but the word “red” might hold dramatic and symbolic purpose, so it’s marginal. How brutal would you be? How deep would you cut? How many words would you assassinate?

Revision Two: “Don’t push the button.”

Some might argue the final version is too short. I’ve rarely encountered dialogue I wished was longer—both in reading and writing. But I promise the cumulative effect of tightened, smart dialogue will become noticeable. Each line will carry a clearer meaning and a sharper edge. Your manuscript will read cleaner and faster. And your readers will compliment you on your smart and witty characters.

So, despite the direction voiced in my example, feel free push the DELETE button and assassinate those extra words in your dialogue.

Todd Allen writes short stories and thrillers infused with an element of the supernatural. His work has been published in literary and suspense magazines including Chiron Review, Thought Magazine, and Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine. He also offers free samples of his stories and manuscripts on his website, toddallenauthor.com. He lives near Houston, Texas with his wife and three sons.

Follow Todd on Twitter @ToddAllenAuthor and Facebook

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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