An editor considers dialogue

One of the most effective tools a writer has at her disposal is sharp, natural dialogue, conversation which flows as freely as the spoken word.

All too often, a writer feels the necessity to describe either who is speaking, or how they speak, rather than allow the tension of the moment, and the character development up to that point, to work for them.

Consider the following:

Aunt Lily smiled and poured the tea. “What’s your name, dear?” she asked.

The girl looked up in surprise. “You don’t know my name?” she asked.

“No, your mother and I haven’t been on listening terms for years,” Aunt Lily said.

“Listening terms?” the girl asked.

Her aunt looked at her with a fair amount of disgust. “Oh God, where do I begin? If we aren’t speaking, how can we be listening? It’s fairly self-explanatory,” she sneered. She paused, fanned herself with the feather duster before again asking the girl her name.

“I was beginning to wonder if anyone cared,” the girl said. “You don’t know how worried I’ve been. This is such a strange place. It was only this morning that I heard of it. Before that, I thought my mother had been born overseas and lived there until she met my father.”

Aunt Lily rolled her eyes as she added sugar to both cups of tea. “Oh, the way you blather on and on. No wonder your parents sent you away. I only asked you your name. I didn’t ask for your life story,” she said.

“I’m not sure I want to tell you now.”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter. I’ll never remember anyway. Probably it’s something quite dull and unimaginative; that would be just like my sister. Murgitroyd or Ichabod no doubt. I’ve always hated those names. Likely I’ll hate yours just as much.”

Aunt Lily dipped a biscuit into her cup and looked thoughtful. “It’s hard enough naming new things. Things that haven’t been worn by time. But to have to name something that is all ragged is something quite different; a very difficult task indeed. I didn’t expect that, at my age, I’d be naming half-grown people. You can well imagine the kind of grief you are causing me. I might need the smelling salts,” she whispered dramatically.

“You don’t even know what my name is. I’m sure you’ll like it,” the girl said earnestly.

“It doesn’t suit you.” Aunt Lily dipped another biscuit before handing it to the girl. “I can tell just by looking. The name doesn’t sit well on your skin, makes you all sallow and unattractive. I’ll think of a new one.”

“What if I don’t want a new one?” The girl said plaintively, re-dipped the biscuit before handing it back. A few crumbs were left floating in her tea.

“I don’t remember asking you if you did. Do you remember me asking if you did?” Aunt Lily said sharply.

“No,” came her meek reply.

“Then, apparently, I don’t care.” Aunt Lily reached out and touched the girl’s arm. “But don’t think that I don’t care in an uncaring way. That would only make me heartless and uncharitable. There’s nothing good to be said about people like that. No, that’s not me at all. I don’t care more in the way that I don’t think it’s really that important,” she sniffed.

“What will you call me then?” the girl asked, in a worried tone of voice.

The old woman looked at her for a while. “Stand up and turn around.”

A little hesitant, the girl stood and turned.

Aunt Lily groaned and banged her cane on the floor. The teacups rattled on the table. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t turn that way!” she railed. “No one can name a thing that turns counter-clockwise. It goes against the sun, and the sun used to be a god you know.” She rubbed her palms on her forehead. “Here for ten minutes and already you’re trying to upset the has-been gods.”

The girl paused before turning in the opposite direction. She hoped this naming thing wouldn’t take long. She was starting to feel nauseated.

Aunt Lily dropped her hands and squinted at her niece through her eyeglasses. “Girly. I will call you Girly,” she said with authority.

“I don’t like it,” the girl protested.

Aunt Lily shrugged. “I don’t care. Besides, would you rather I call you Murgitroyd?”

“No,” she murmured.

“Then Girly it is,” Aunt Lily said with finality.

Every single description of how the characters speak and who is speaking arrests the flow of the narrative, and gives the reader one more reason to go and do something else. The dialogue stutters. Any natural flow of dialogue disappears.

This is how C.P. Hoff rewrote the scene from A Town Called Forget.

Aunt Lily smiled and poured the tea. “What’s your name, dear?”

The girl looked up in surprise. “You don’t know my name?”

“No, your mother and I haven’t been on listening terms for years.”

“Listening terms?”

Her aunt looked at her with a fair amount of disgust. “Oh God, where do I begin? If we aren’t speaking, how can we be listening? It’s fairly self-explanatory.” She paused, fanned herself with the feather duster before again asking the girl her name.

“I was beginning to wonder if anyone cared,” the girl said. “You don’t know how worried I’ve been. This is such a strange place. It was only this morning that I heard of it. Before that, I thought my mother had been born overseas and lived there until she met my father.”

Aunt Lily rolled her eyes as she added sugar to both cups of tea. “Oh, the way you blather on and on. No wonder your parents sent you away. I only asked you your name. I didn’t ask for your life story.”

“I’m not sure I want to tell you now.”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter. I’ll never remember anyway. Probably it’s something quite dull and unimaginative; that would be just like my sister. Murgitroyd or Ichabod no doubt. I’ve always hated those names. Likely I’ll hate yours just as much.”

Aunt Lily dipped a biscuit into her cup and looked thoughtful. “It’s hard enough naming new things. Things that haven’t been worn by time. But to have to name something that is all ragged is something quite different; a very difficult task indeed. I didn’t expect that, at my age, I’d be naming half-grown people. You can well imagine the kind of grief you are causing me. I might need the smelling salts.”

“You don’t even know what my name is. I’m sure you’ll like it.”

“It doesn’t suit you.” Aunt Lily dipped another biscuit before handing it to the girl. “I can tell just by looking. The name doesn’t sit well on your skin, makes you all sallow and unattractive. I’ll think of a new one.”

“What if I don’t want a new one?” The girl re-dipped the biscuit before handing it back. A few crumbs were left floating in her tea.

“I don’t remember asking you if you did. Do you remember me asking if you did?”

“No.”

“Then, apparently, I don’t care.” Aunt Lily reached out and touched the girl’s arm. “But don’t think that I don’t care in an uncaring way. That would only make me heartless and uncharitable. There’s nothing good to be said about people like that. No, that’s not me at all. I don’t care more in the way that I don’t think it’s really that important.”

“What will you call me then?”

The old woman looked at her for a while. “Stand up and turn around.”

A little hesitant, the girl stood and turned.[LS1]

Aunt Lily groaned and banged her cane on the floor. The teacups rattled on the table. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t turn that way! No one can name a thing that turns counter-clockwise. It goes against the sun, and the sun used to be a god you know.” She rubbed her palms on her forehead. “Here for ten minutes and already you’re trying to upset the has-been gods.”

The girl paused before turning in the opposite direction. She hoped this naming thing wouldn’t take long. She was starting to feel nauseated.

Aunt Lily dropped her hands and squinted at her niece through her eyeglasses. “Girly. I will call you Girly.”

“I don’t like it.”

Aunt Lily shrugged. “I don’t care. Besides, would you rather I call you Murgitroyd?”

“No.”

“Then Girly it is.”

Now the dialogue is sharp, flows naturally, and thus retains the readers’ interest. C.P. Hoff has allowed character action, and what they say, to do the work for her. This is frankly, a brilliant piece of writing.

So, ask yourself when you’re creating a dialogue:

  • Do I really need to identify this speaker?
  • Do I really need to describe the how this character is speaking?
  • What can I do to marry action and dialogue into a smooth flow?

Do that, and you’ll create natural dialogue that sings.

 

 

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