For those of you who think that realism is the goal when writing book dialogue, don’t. How-are-yous, thank-yous, you’re-welcomes, may-I-introduces should almost never appear in books although these are words many of us utter every day. All these commonplace phrases just drag things down in books and can often be taken for granted so they don’t need to be included. Effective bookspeak is pared down; words are carefully chosen as specific expressions. Many times what is most important is what isn’t said.
To illustrate, here is a conversation one of us recently had with her husband. It is pretty much verbatim except that names have been changed to protect the identity of unwitting house guests:
She: Sit down. We have to talk about something.
He: What are you doing?
She: Leaving you
He: Oh, that’s great. When are you going to start packing?
She: Just kidding. It just sounded so dramatic asking you to sit down.
He: I thought you were just being your usual demanding self.
She: I got an e-mail from Nell today.
She: She says they will be leaving Florida a day early so they will be arriving during the afternoon in time for the hockey game.
He: I told you John really wants to see Ovechkin play.
She: Maybe we should all go out to dinner.
He: John doesn’t do very well going out to dinner.
She: So you are saying that you will eat at the game?
He: I think that would be the best thing.
She: I will have to figure out something for Nell and me to do.
This is the kind of humdrum discussion that makes up everyday life for most of us. It has a lot of words in it, many of them unnecessary to communication and even more of them deadly to book dialogue.
Something else that drags the above dialogue down is the rambling nature of it. It’s not going anywhere, not plugged in to a greater whole. Book dialogue should always serve the plot. In the above case, there is no plot, it is just life.
So, with apologies to Capitals’ hockey left wing Alex Ovechkin, here is the same conversation edited to be included in a thriller:
She: We have to talk.
He: When are you going to start packing?
She: I got an e mail.
She: They will be arriving during the afternoon.
He: John wants to see Ovechkin.
She: Maybe we should go out.
He: John doesn’t do well going out.
She: I will figure something out.
Reworked to be part of a relationship novel:
She: Sit down. We have to talk.
He: What are you doing?
She: E mail from Nell. They will be arriving in time for the game.
He: John wants to see Ovechkin play.
She: Maybe we should go out to dinner.
He: John doesn’t do well at dinner.
She: You will eat at the game?
He: I think that would be best.