Today’s post is courtesy of Becca Hart, author of AGAINST ALL ODDS, coming later this year.
We’ve all read dialogue where there’s so much talking, but the characters don’t move. That’s not even inspired by real life! What about the other extreme, though? That’s what we’re going to talk about.
Take this scene, for instance:
“What did you mean by that comment you made earlier?” Rachel asked. She lowered herself on the loveseat and crossed her legs. Her expression was pointed.
“Nothing,” Adrian said. He slipped his hands in his pockets and half-turned away from her. He crossed the room and leaned on the back of the chair across from her, still not looking at her.
“Adrian, how many times must we go through this?” She slumped back and folded her arms across her chest. She reached up and rubbed the side of her nose.
“Look,” he said, moving around the chair and sitting on the arm of it, finally meeting her eyes. “This is stupid. You’re tired of this; I’m tired of it.” He rubbed one temple. “I really didn’t mean anything by it.”
Rachel’s expression hardened. “I don’t believe that. You did mean something, and I think I know what. You just won’t admit it.” She shook her head as she dropped her arms and rested one on the pillow next to her. “You’re such a child sometimes, pulling the same crap Jamie does when he doesn’t want to tell me the truth.” She rubbed her face.
Adrian burst out of the chair and charged toward her, bending till their faces were a couple inches apart. “Don’t you say anything like that to me again,” he said through his teeth. “Or I’ll—”
“Or you’ll what?” She stood. “Get out of my face, and don’t ever threaten me again.” She spun on her heel and stomped from the room, skirting out of the way of the ottoman.
What sticks out here? The tension? Maybe. But if it can be felt at all, it’s probably muted by something else. We’ve all heard of the “talking heads syndrome”—a line of dialogue followed by another line and so on without any character movement whatsoever. But as the old saying goes, there are two sides to every coin. This dialogue scene gives us the other side: so much movement the tension and the characters’ personalities and motivations are buried in it. I recently traveled down the dark road toward this extreme in my effort to avoid the “talking heads” problem. Actually, more accurately, I barreled down the road and crashed right into it! There was so much physical movement in my dialogue it choked off the essence of the scenes or at least seriously stifled it.
Balance is the key. Ask yourself several questions:
1. What movements are necessary to convey the subtext—the stuff going on under the surface?
2. What are the characters thinking?
3. What are they trying to hide or reveal?
4. What body language are they subconsciously displaying that reveals their true motivations? (This tends to work best when it goes unsaid, depending on the dialogue situation.)
Of course, you also want there to be enough physical movement to create a picture in the reader’s mind, so it’s all one big balancing act. What part of writing fiction isn’t?
In the above scene, there’s just too much movement. There are only a few lines that reveal subtext, motivation, and tension: Adrian puts his hands in his pockets and half-turns away; Rachel crosses her arms and gives him a pointed look. With a couple of other exceptions, that’s it. The rest is extra. Yes, we do these other things in real life when we talk, but as the wisest writers have pointed out, fictional dialogue is inspired by real life, not a copy of it. If it were, no one would read it!
Let’s take a look back at the scene, cutting out the extra movement:
“What did you mean by the comment you made earlier?” Rachel asked, her expression pointed. She sat on the loveseat, arms crossed.
“Nothing,” Adrian said. He slipped his hands in his pockets and half-turned away.
“Adrian, how many times must we go through this?”
“Look,” he said, finally meeting her eyes, “this is stupid. You’re tired of this; I’m tired of it. I didn’t really mean anything by it.”
Her expression hardened. “I don’t believe you. You meant something, and I think I know what. You just won’t admit it.” She shook her head. “You’re such a child sometimes, pulling the crap Jamie does when he won’t tell me the truth.”
Adrian charged toward her and bent to within a couple inches of her face. “Don’t you say anything like that to me again,” he said through his teeth, “or I’ll—”
“Or you’ll what?” She stood. “Get out of my face, and don’t ever threaten me again.” She stomped from the room.
This time, the tension is much more obvious, as is the subtext of character motivations. There’s just enough movement (and the right kind) to support the scene’s essence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
A wife and homeschooling mother of two and a cat, Becca Hart originally hails from Northeastern Ohio and now lives in Southern Colorado. In 2013, she graduated from Pikes Peak Community College with an Associate of Arts degree in English. She’s been writing short stories and novels since the tender age of 14. Writing is the only thing Becca can imagine doing full time for the rest of her life. Her short story, “The Drive,” is published in Diverse Voices Quaterly, and her romantic suspense novel, Against All Odds, will be out later this year under Anaiah Press. You can visit Becca on Facebook.