#10 Missing Dialogue Dysfunction
Ever read a well-plotted book with engaging characters and exquisite execution that just couldn’t grab you? Something was missing that you couldn’t quite identify. This frustrating scenario happens for a number of reasons, not all of them in the author’s control. For our purposes here, we’ll focus on one common dialogue-writing mistake I’ve come across over and over again as a literary contest judge and that I’ve been guilty of myself: missing dialogue.
When we summarize through exposition rather than setting a scene that will engage the reader’s senses, dialogue goes missing. The effect is rather like a five-year-old calling from a playground swing: “Look at me!” While your loving eyes may make your child’s antics forever fresh, readers are probably less prejudiced about your story. They will endure only so much telling rather than showing.
You see, what every reader wants is not to watch and applaud, but to be in that swing.
Example of Missing DialogueMissing dialogue is my own term for when a writer summarizes information for the reader when writing a scene would be better.
I probably don’t need to point out which version, below, is a yawner and which isn’t.
Here’s last week’s scene as exposition:
Mary met Gabriel the day little Nellie climbed into the tree and nearly broke her neck. He’d been reluctant to help at first because he’d never been faced with such a situation but thankfully pitched in.
The original version:
“My daughter is stuck in the tree!” Mary pulled Gabriel off the porch step and into her yard.
He glanced up, then whistled through his teeth, already pulling his mailbag off his shoulder. How on earth could a toddler climb that high?
“Help her, please.” Mary’s words came in short bursts while her fingers moved convulsively on his arm.
“Call the fire department.”
“There’s no time. She could fall any moment.”
He hesitated. Nowhere in his post office training had handling such a situation been remotely discussed. “Do you have a ladder?”
A scream pulsed through the air, and the mailbag slipped from his fingers. “Hang on, princess!”
What Causes Missing Dialogue?
Sometimes we write exposition in place of dialogue because we’re throwing the story out as fast as we can. While writing a first draft, the creative flow pulls us along, and we have to keep up. That is, when a writing session is going well.
When writing the first draft lags, it’s as tempting to summarize in order to keep the story moving. We can fill in the story better later. During self-editing, however, thin places in the manuscript can be easy to miss due to the story’s familiarity.
While writing, bold or highlight thin passages so you can find and fix them later.
Overcoming Missing Dialogue Dysfunction
- Take your time while self-editing and watch for these omissions.
- Ask yourself if a passage of exposition would work better as dialogue.
- Use your imagination, and trust your instincts.
- This problem is another of the many reasons to work with an editor. I offer advice and resources on how to find one in the guide, How to Edit: Checklists and Guidance for Fiction Writers.
- Run your manuscripts by a critique partner or critique group.
Some Final Thoughts
There are times when pacing calls for nonessential details to be summarized. This makes it possible to jump ahead to a more interesting spot without jarring the reader. Gauging this correctly takes practice and storytelling ability. but then that’s why they pay writers the big bucks, right?
This concludes the Top 10 Dialogue-Writing Mistakes series. Thanks for your attention. If you gleaned from these teachings, please mention them to your writing friends and use the sharing buttons to mention this series on social sites.
Go to dialogue writing mistake #9: Cliched Dialogue.
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