Monday, January 23, 2023

Don’t Let Empty Dialogue Scuttle Your Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Dialogue is usually fast-paced, but when it’s all fluff, it slows down the story.

Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write. It lets me discover who my characters are and how they interact with the world around them, and how they work though solving their problems. My first draft of a scene is always heavy on the talking.

Usually, the conversations are good and keep the story moving, but sometimes, it takes me a while to find the rhythm and figure out how the scene is going to unfold. When that happens, a big chunk of the dialogue is pointless and empty.

And empty dialogue will kill your scene, every time.

Empty dialogue feels like decent writing because characters are chatting away and often interacting, but nothing is actually being said.

At best, empty dialogue bogs down the scene and slows the pacing. At worst, it annoys readers. They skim through it and lose interest, because nothing is going on.

These empty lines typically show up at the start and end of a conversation, though they can happen anywhere. For example (exaggerated to make a point, but conversations like this actually do make it into scenes):

“Hey Hector, man,” a guy from work called out. Chuck Something.

Hector scowled. Like he had time for this. Chuck stopped and they shook hands. “Morning.”

“Good to see you.”

Hector nodded. “You, too.”

“Some day, huh?”

“Sure is.”

Chuck looked around, apparently in no hurry to leave. “I love days like this,” he said.

“Sunny and hot?”

“Yep. Great boat weather.”

“Ah. Listen, I gotta—”

“How about you? Having a good weekend?”

“To die for.” Hector twitched, picturing the body in his freezer he still didn’t know how to get rid of. Wait a sec “Um, did you say you had a boat?”

That’s a lot of words that do nothing to advance the story, plot, or characterization, and they also fail to set the scene or do any world building. It’s empty dialogue and most of it isn’t needed at all.

Let’s look at how much tighter this would be (and more interesting) if we got rid of the empties.

“Hey Hector, man,” a guy from work called out. Chuck Something. He stopped and they shook hands. “Some day, huh?”

Hector scowled. Like he had time for this. “Sure is. Listen, I gotta—”

“I love days like this,” Chuck continued, apparently in no hurry to leave. “Great boat weather. You having a good weekend?”

Hector twitched, picturing the body in his freezer he still didn’t know how to get rid of. Wait a sec“Um, did you say you had a boat?”

The narrative focus is tighter now, leading the conversation toward the boat and the fact that Chuck is a little clueless and might make a good pasty to help get rid of a body. There’s still enough of a dialogue “delay” to give the impression that Chuck likes to talk and Hector wants out of there, but not so much that the reader feels the same way.

Dealing With Empty Dialogue in Your Own Work

If you’re unsure if the dialogue in a scene is a few quarts low or not, ask yourself:

1. If you took it out, would the meaning of the conversation change?

Empty dialogue is empty precisely because it adds nothing to the scene. In most cases, you can accomplish the same goal with one line, as in my example. If you take it out of the scene, the story loses nothing, let it stay out.

2. Could you combine several lines into a single line that accomplishes the same task?

If there are four lines that basically say “hello, how are you, we need to talk,” or the like, skip the delays and get to the meat of the story.

If there are some important bits mixed in (again, like my example), consider how you might trim out the words that do nothing, and tighten up the words that need to be there.

3. Are you trying to delay the scene?

Sometimes we add empty dialogue because we want the scene to feel as though someone is dragging their feet. Instead of throwing in “useless” words, look for ways to deepen the scene or add additional information while giving the impression of awkward time passing.

Internalization can help here, with the point of view character wondering when the speaker will get to the point, or suggesting someone is prattling on without showing the dialogue.

The tighter your dialogue, the stronger your pacing will be, which helps hook readers and keeps them engaged in the novel.

We tend to look for boggy description or unnecessary backstory when editing, but empty dialogue can be just as detrimental to strong prose. And it’s not uncommon for writers to miss it—we skim right over dialogue we’ve read multiple times, because there’s technically nothing wrong with what’s being said. It’s a realistic portrayal of a conversation. It just isn’t doing anything to help the novel.

So don’t be afraid to fill those empty spaces with conversations that matter, and use them to keep your story flowing smoothly.

Are you prone to empty dialogue? Where do you most use it? If not, where do you most often see it?


Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The example really reveals some useless dialogue.
Thanks again for joining us today, Janice!

PT Dilloway said...

A lot of real life conversation is pretty useless. Most of the time in books you can either eliminate that or sum it up without going through it line-by-line. Unless, as you say, the point is to convey the tedium the character is experiencing.

Janice Hardy said...

Alex, thanks! I have so much fun writing examples :) And thanks for letting me hang with the ISWG again.

PT Dilloway, exactly. The trick is making it sound like "real life."

Elizabeth Seckman said...

I hope I'm not prone to it, but I may be. I'll have to give my dialogue a better review now! Thanks!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I have to watch for useless dialogue. Thanks for the examples.

Janice Hardy said...

Elizabeth, I suspect we all do it from time to time :) Sometimes we just need to get into the rhythm of a conversation, but as long ad we edit out the empty stuff later, we're fine.

Natalie, you're most welcome. It's one of the things on my "stuff to check on list" when I start my edits.

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Joylene Nowell Butler said...

That was fun! Your examples had me hooked.

Janice Hardy said...

Thanks Joylene! I'm glad you enjoyed it. The examples are my favorite parts of writing a post :)