I’m about 75% of the way through The Magician by Michael Scott. Some of you might remember the review for the first book in this series, The Alchemyst, in which I was so flustered by the content of the book that I broke down into bullet points. And for reasons that I still don’t completely understand, almost a year later, I find myself reading the sequel to what was arguably the most blah book I have ever read.
While reading last night, I found myself skimming the text. I rarely do that; I’m a slow reader because I take in each and every word. After I made several frustrated attempts to stop myself from skipping whole paragraphs, I realized the book was actually forcing me to be a bad reader.
“Just stop talking and do something already!” I finally yelled at the text.
And that gave me pause. The outburst had finally let me put a finger on what had been driving me crazy about this series from page one: The characters talk way too much.
One of the first things you will learn in a creative writing class (or from a good creative writing book) is that characters should only talk if they have something to say. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it is a harder skill to pull off than it seems.
In general terms, as an author, you need to make sure the reader is following your story. That requires a certain amount of hand-holding as you reiterate key plot points. Typically, authors do this by having the character think about the Important Plot Point every now and again, or by injecting some consistent symbolism to keep the relevant issues from fading from the reader’s mind.
But sometimes, authors decide to plot-dump through dialogue, and that’s where things start to fall apart. In the real world, we talk in winding, schizophrenic snippets. Most of us don’t even use full sentences. Hell, my mother and I communicate mostly in made-up phrases littered with Italian and Polish.
This won’t work for a book, of course. No reader would sit through that. But the opposite doesn’t work, either. In The Magician, Scott’s characters speak in paragraph form, waxing poetic about issues the reader is aware of and doesn’t need to be reminded of in such a blunt, repetitive way. It makes for an extremely boring narrative and more than a small amount of section-skipping.
For a writer, I have three recommendations for how to get around the dialogue dump:
1. Talk it out: Read your dialogue out loud. If you find yourself getting bored with the sound of your own voice, you need to go back and shorten the text. Make it natural. Fragment sentences in dialogue are a-okay.
2. Go for close reading: Find authors whose dialogue you really love. For me, it’s Jim Butcher and Rick Riordan. Sit down and diagram the dialogue out. One of the hardest parts of conversationto capture is the tete-a-tete argument. Find a passage where it’s done well, figure out how the author pulled it off, and apply it to your own writing.
3. Watch more TV: The best place to find intense dialogue is TV (or movies). Without the shortcut of literary exposition to get in the way, these stories are carried by conversation alone — and I challenge you to find me a show full characters speaking in paragraph form without letting anyone else butt in (Shakespeare remakes don’t count, sorry). So pop in a disc of The West Wing or tune in to an episode of Modern Family. And nothing will ever beat the dialogue of Firefly. That’s where the real gems of knowledge are.