Blah Blah Blah: How Dead-End Dialogue Kills Pacing and How to Get Your Story Back Up to Speed by Amy K. Nichols
Of all the problems writers face when revising, one of the most elusive is pacing. Locking into the internal engine of a story can be tricky. We writers tend to overthink our scenes, distrust our instincts, and underestimate our readers. Then we compensate by adding more words, which only gums up the works. As a result, our stories sputter and lag, groaning under the weight of all the stuff we’ve crammed into them. Our critique partners return chapters with comments like, This section drags, This part lost my interest, What’s the point here?
Ugh. Fixing pacing problems can seem like an unwieldy process. Where do you even begin?
I suggest with dialogue.
In my experience there are three common dialogue problems that result in bogged-down pacing: white noise; perfect questions, perfect answers; and stating the obvious. The good news is, because dialogue stands out visually from the rest of the text, it’s easy to isolate and revise each section individually. Even better news is, each of these problems is pretty easy to fix. Here’s what to look for, and suggestions on getting your story back up on track.
Sometimes your characters get to chatting and say a whole lot more than what needs to be said. The result is a slew of words that act like white noise or static, adding nothing to the story. When revising dialogue, look for repeated questions and dwindling comments. For example:
Character 1: Did you watch the finale of Game of Thrones?
Character 2: The one with Snow?
Character 1: Yeah.
Character 2: Yeah.
Character 1: That was crazy, huh?
Character 2: Totally crazy.
Character 1: Yeah.
Authentic character voice is good, but keep in mind that just because people actually talk like this, it doesn’t necessarily make for good reading. Here’s how you might revise such an interaction to keep the story moving:
Character 1: Did you see what happened to Snow on Game of Thrones?
Character 2: Yeah. That was crazy.
Character 1: Totally.
Done. It gets the information to the reader while keeping the authentic voices of the characters. All you’ve lost is the extraneous white noise that slows the pacing. Regardless of whether your dialogue is gripping or inane like this (hopefully it’s gripping), trimming away the excess takes away the drag.
Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers
The second thing to look for are instances where characters continually ask the exact questions necessary for getting information across to the reader or so the next plot point can take place. In other words, a sequence of perfect questions followed by the perfect answers. This is a really easy pattern to fall into, especially in early drafts when you’re trying to figure out the story. We think we’re being crafty, using dialogue to convey information and instigate action, but when your characters always say all the right things at all the right times, it actually stunts the story. It’s like when your windshield is too dry and your wipers make that awful bbbbrooooarromph noise. For example:
Character 1: Want to go to the movies tonight?
Character 2: That would be great. I’ll pick you up at six.
Character 1: Want to get dinner after?
Character 2: Sure. We can go to Bucky’s Burgers.
Character 1: Isn’t that where Brian works?
Character 2: Yeah. Maybe he’ll see me and ask me out.
Okay, hopefully your writing is a lot more compelling than this, but still, you can see the problem. Perfect questions followed by perfect answers. Sometimes info dumps lurk in these exchanges. There’s nothing in dialogue above that can’t just be shown through the action and progression of the plot. The characters go to the movie, get dinner after, see Brian, and he asks Character 2 out. The work is done visually rather than through stilted dialogue. If you absolutely must keep the exchange, pare it down.
Character 1: Movie tonight? Bucky’s after?
Character 2: Sure. I’ll pick you up at six.
You can use dialogue to set up the action to come without telegraphing what the plot will be. Keep it simple. Keep it moving.
Stating the Obvious
The final problem to look for when revising is sections where your characters say what they already know solely for the reader’s benefit. Writers do this when they question their ability to communicate the story, and/or when they underestimate the readers’ ability to comprehend it. Passages of dialogue that state the obvious cause readers to roll their eyes and think, We already know this! (Well, that’s how I react anyway.)
If you come across a character stating the obvious, ask yourself the following questions:
- Has any of this been shown in previous scenes or chapters?
- Does this section of dialogue advance the story?
- If I cut this dialogue, will the reader be lost or confused?
If you answer these questions and still feel you need the exchange, revise the section to be as quick and snappy as possible.
Along the same lines, keep an eye out for info dumps. This is when a character (or in some cases, the narrator) stops the story to explain something, such as a character’s backstory or the technical specifications of a spaceship. Because info dumps act like a pause button on your plot, any momentum you’ve built up to that point will be interrupted. When it comes to info dumps, the rule of thumb is to wait as long as possible to include them. Only do an info dump when your reader is so curious and so wanting the information, they’re willing to put up with the interruption.
While fixing pacing can feel like a huge undertaking, starting with these three dialogue problems can be a quick way to jump-start your story and get it moving again.
About the Book:
Raised in a foster home, Danny has led a life full of hurt and hardship until a glitch in the universe changes everything. Suddenly Danny is living in a home he’s never seen, with parents who miraculously survived the car crash that should have killed them. It’s like he’s a new Danny. But this alternate self has secrets—ties to an underground anarchist group that have already landed him in hot water. When he starts to develop feelings for Eevee, he’s even more disturbed to learn that he might have started the fire that ruined her work.
As Danny sifts through clues from his past and Eevee attempts to piece together her future, they uncover a secret that’s bigger than both of them. . . . And together, they must correct the breach between the worlds before it’s too late.
Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads
About the Author:
While You Were Gone, published by Knopf. She holds a master’s in literature and studied medieval paleography before switching her focus to writing fiction. Insatiably curious, Amy dabbles in art, studies karate, tries to understand quantum physics, and has a long list of things to do before she dies. She lives with her family outside Phoenix, AZ. In the evenings, she enjoys counting bats and naming stars. Sometimes she names the bats. Visit her online at www.amyknichols.com.
Website | Twitter | Goodreads
-- posted by Susan Sipal, @HP4Writers