One of the big things I do when I edit a story is go through and see where I can take out dialogue and replace it with action without compromising the story, Now you could blame the creative writing mantra ‘show, don’t tell’ but I’ve always had a very visual imagination so much so one of my creative writing tutors once suggested I was putting in too many visual cues and he had a point. What he meant wasn’t that I should stop showing simply that I was showing too much detail, the reader didn’t necessarily need to know in that moment what the stone felt like under the character’s hands or what the birds sounded like or the scent in the air. I was going full on and would have all that in one paragraph, sensory overload. The trick, I’ve found, is to sprinkle the details around, because sometimes a sensory cue can be more effective than dialogue.
First I trim down the dialogue. An example of this would be towards the end of The Genuine Article where the narrator and her sister are discussing whether or not the narrator would reveal anything about her death. I was going to quote this here but it’s far too long however in The Genuine Article Take Two the section is far shorter, boiled down to the point of the matter:
‘If I was going to die… would you tell me?’ she asked.
I leaned my head back, closed my eyes and rubbed the bridge of my nose. ‘No.’ I got stiffly to my feet.
‘Is that no you won’t or no I won’t?’ Rachel asked.
I gave her a look. ‘Death is the one inevitable, sis.’
In the original version this is a little more spread out but the narrator talks about the changeability of the future and how she doesn’t foresee her sister dying immediately, blah, blah, blah. It’s all unnecessary because it begged the question: why didn’t she simply point out everyone dies? It also gives the ‘no’ a hint of vagueness because, as Rachel says, you can’t be sure if she’s saying Rachel won’t die or she won’t tell her if she will. So despite being condensed there is more in the dialogue that is still there.
Now I’ve cut down what they say where it feels necessary there’s also when they don’t need to say anything. So in GA we have:
‘Nobody really believes it. Well, most don’t. People watch mediums ‘cause they want a laugh or some reassurance.’
‘Hmmm…’ I stopped shuffling. ‘They still kill witches, you know.’
Which in GAT2 is cut down to:
‘Oh, come on, not enough people believe in this stuff for it to do any harm and those that do don’t need me to convince them.’
I stopped shuffling.
On re-reading it the narrator’s dialogue seemed unnecessary at this point because the act of stopping her shuffling, which she has been doing the entire time up to this point, tells the reader she disagrees with what Rachel is saying without her having to say that she does. Is this more effective? I find so but ultimately it is for the reader to decide.
In this passage there is also the fact that I changed what Rachel was saying and perhaps I could give this some intellectual spin but I simply didn’t like it, to me it sounded wrong somehow so I changed it. Quite often you might find moments like this where you can’t say why something isn’t working, simply that your writerly instincts are saying it doesn’t. You should pay attention to these instincts because as you progress as a writer you’ll find you can predict what will and won’t work in your stories better. As with anything experience brings about improvement.
Now all this is simply the method that I use and it might not work for you, you might prefer you’re writing to be more talkative and if that works for you then that’s fine. Don’t go away thinking that I’d trying to tell you this is how you have to do it because I won’t, as I keep saying the only person who can really tell you how to write is yourself, everyone else can only suggest things to try.
For more writing advice see my archive page.