So I’ve got this group of characters hanging out together in the crowded living room of my novel, and they just can’t keep a reader awake.
What might I be doing wrong?
Am I using them to explain the story? Yes? Busted! The agent/editor accuses—amateur!—and throws the manuscript into the can.
Or maybe my characters sound like polite folk describing the butter cow in the dairy barn at the Illinois State Fair?
ZZZzzzzzzzzz, unless the butter cow figures somehow into the scheme of the blunt butter batterer.
So being a slow learner, I return, once again, to my dialogue credo that promises to turn butter talk into provocative conversation:
1) Writing is like the law.
I should identify the key evidence and witnesses and then present them strategically to the jury. Don’t (knowing there are plenty of exceptions) give my characters the work of narration. That’s what I get paid the big bucks to do.
2) Give my characters something interesting to say. That’s why they’re called “characters,” right? Make the dialogue complicate their lives. They should obfuscate, procrastinate, pontificate, lie, work at cross purposes, boast, judge, bicker, needle, whine, complain, etc., and do it without depending on dialogue tags—she said needlessly.
Put myself in my characters’ flipflops/wing tips/Manolos/orthopedic shoes/calloused bare feet,
and ask myself:
What is distinct about my voice?
What am I trying to hide?
What clues would make you think I’m lying?
What do I know that no one else in this crowded room knows?
What am I trying to convince you to do without having to ask you outright?
What kind of an impression am I trying to make on you?
What am I saying to keep you from thinking about what I’m not saying?
What would I say about you if you weren’t in the room?
In other words, although they make good neighbors (even without the fences),
no one wants to read about “everyday people” in an everyday kind of way.
This doesn’t mean they all have to be evil, cruel, or mean-spirited. They could be lying or withholding info for good reasons. What are those reasons?
Maybe they don’t even know that they’re lying or withholding. Maybe they just live in different realities—like most of us.
3) Now here’s where I bring in the drill sergeant:
“Don’t just sit there. Move it! Move it! Move it!” And we’re talking story, here. Move it—the story—along. What purpose does this dialogue serve? Does it reveal information about characters or plot that keeps things rolling? No? Hit the “delete” key, now.
BIG BUTTER SCENE
Overheard dialogue just outside the dairy barn at the Illinois State Fair:
“Did you get a load of Harold’s face when he laid eyes on the butter cow,” said Sarah. “For sure, he recognized those teats.”
“Hush,” said Myrtle. “That’s no way for a young lady to talk.”
“I’ll bet the store those—udders—conjured up Hazel’s finer qualities,” Sarah said. “You remember her?”
“I do,” said Myrtle. “And why would I want to?”
“He loved that cow—”
“Sarah, hush!” said Myrtle. “It’s no business of yours.”
Now, you fill in the backstory.