This is my purgatory: a diner in New York City, about half full with people, not too loud, not too quiet. A Wednesday evening in late February. It’s about to start snowing, but no one will know this until they leave. But here’s the problem: nobody can leave. And it’s because of me, because I’m stuffed into a booth with my laptop trying to figure out what these people should say. And since I can’t, we’re all trapped, doomed to stare at each other for all eternity.
Fade in: the diner scene. The first turning point. This may arguably be the most important scene in my story, where my characters finally admit their attraction for one another and start figuring out what to do from there.
Ok, so I’m not a screenwriter, but with the amount of dialogue I use, maybe I should try. This has always been a problem for me. I’m perfectly aware of this fact on my own, but of course I’ve been told this by people on a teen writing website I used to frequent, college professors, or coworkers who started my short story but never finished it (you know who you are!)
So I’ll just admit it. I, Sarah Anne Foster, am a dialogue abuser.
Let’s backtrack to last March when I was having my short story workshopped in my fiction class. I had already chopped down my darling from the 38-page monster that it was down to a more reasonable 24 pages that my fellow writers would be able to digest. And when it came time to discuss the diner scene, like I had dreaded, the subject of dialogue came up. The professor actually held up a page from this scene and compared it to another, more prose-filled page, displaying how quickly the reader breezes through a page of mostly dialogue. This would have been mortifying if I hadn’t been expecting it.
Now while I wholeheartedly admit that I use too much dialogue, I actually disagree with what the professor said next. He claimed that when writing in first person past tense, it’s like you are actually pulling from your memory and you wouldn’t remember exactly what was said. For the most part, you should paraphrase. I really disagree with this. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in first person past tense that didn’t reveal everything that the characters were saying like it was happening in real time. Sure, paraphrasing can be great when you’re summarizing some boring dialogue, but the important lines, I feel, should be there. It isn’t a memory, it’s a story. Even if it's in past tense, the reader needs to be in the moment.
Unfortunately, the amount of dialogue in this scene wasn’t my only problem. It was also what was being said. The problem with this scene can be summed up very well by a comment made by another student in my workshop: “I’d love to be in the next booth.” Basically, my characters are having a very (I mean, VERY, like could be construed as illegal) private conversation in a very public place. The whole conversation was pretty over the top even if the characters had been alone on the living room couch. I’ll spare you an example. Enough mortal eyes have already been exposed to it for my liking. I’ve eventually been able to justify the location to myself (just trust me) beyond my own indulgence, but it comes with a condition. I have to tone it down.
So once my characters are discussing whether it’s a good idea or not for them to have sex, this is the part where I should yell “CUT!” Make my presence known and say, “All right, all right, rein it in, boys. You’re being ridiculous.” But as usual, my dialogue tends to run amok. It’s like the characters go on and on with their conversation and then turn and look at me and say, “Oh, you’re still here?”
The hardest part is figuring out how to get my characters to say things without actually saying them. Is it with gestures, glances, uncomfortable silences? Do I write the whole scene in whispers? It’s a grueling process, but I’ve come up with an interesting strategy: just keep writing the dialogue. I’ll write lines and lines of it and then go back and cut out half. I find if I get out everything that they could possibly say, it’s easier to pick out what they actually should say.
So the solution to my dialogue problem? Just write some more dialogue. Maybe take a break and order a cheeseburger. We’ll get out of here eventually.