In addition to over-using dialogue, one common tic I see are conversations that are constantly interrupted with dramatic pauses, empty gestures, ellipses, and other “beats” that are meant to control how the reader hears the dialogue.
You’ll see entire long conversations unfold like this where nothing much is gained by the interruptions:
“You see,” Nathan said, scratching his chin. “I… Well, you see…” Nathan cast his eyes at the person he was speaking to. “I probably…”
“Yes?” the person asked, leaning forward. “Go on.”
“Well,” Nathan said, waiting another beat for good measure. “I probably… Well, I probably could have just gotten on with it in the first place.”
Don’t over-engineer the rhythm of your dialogue! It takes the reader out of the moment and makes a conversation feel choppy. The hand of the author can feel far too apparent.
Sure. Dramatic pauses can add some anticipation, but use them very sparingly and strategically. Only when it’s within character for someone to be dramatic, and even then only when it’s really, really necessarily.
For regular conversations: don’t overthink the rhythm.
You hear the dialogue one way. Let the reader hear it their own way.
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Art: Ein Gespräch am Sockel einer steinernen Vase by Jan Weenix
JOHN T. SHEA says
“Hmmm…maybe…on the other hand…perhaps…” John mused idly.
But seriously, I actually prefer the other extreme, as in Michael Crichton’s later novels, which have so little in the way of dialogue (and particularly duologue) tags and attributions that parts of them look like movie scripts.
Carol McKenzie says
I agree. I do law enforcement transcription and even though that’s how people speak, it’s infuriating to listen to much less to try to read on a page.
But when I started writing I couldn’t write a sentence without an ellipse. I’ve broken myself of that habit…more or less.
Neil Larkins says
Thanks for this, Nathan. My current WIP, a memoir, is dialogue heavy – which is probably the wrong thing to have done – and at first used a lot of the pauses, etc. you mentioned. I’ve been whittling it down but think I still need to do more. What has been difficult for me is portraying a telephone conversation that I witness. I can only hear the person in the room and not the person she is talking to. How to get that across has been a real challenge. I wish I knew of a book that has something like that so to get a better idea of how best to do it. I thought of doing it this way, but didn’t: “I said to Mama that I checked myself out of the hospital and then she said, ‘I wish you would have told me first’ and then I said that I’m an adult, and besides there was no phone in the room and then she said ‘ Do you want your sister to come get you?’ and then I said, ‘No. I can take care of myself.'” You get the idea. Too ponderous.
Thanks for letting me laugh at myself. Time to edit.