Don't Tell Your Story in the Dialogue

I’m currently reading story called The Face of Death, by Cody McFayden. It’s a good story. I mean, it’s a really good story. There is one problem with it that bugs me though. The author has chosen to have the main character, in dialogue, tell the readers things they need to know. This is fine, except, this main character is an FBI agent who is talking to other law enforcement officials, most of whom have been doing their jobs for years, and she is talking to them like they are not even rookies, but rather students. In the dialogue, she tells these cops things that to cops should be really basic things they already know.

I would imagine this is the author’s way of informing the reader so that the reader knows what she means, but putting it in the dialogue ruins it for me… it makes it not believable to me. Maybe that’s because I used to work with law enforcement officers as a victim advocate and I taught at the police academy at one point too so I know how officers work, but still, I find that putting this information for the reader in the dialogue fails to suspend my disbelief in the story at times.

I was editing another book for a small publisher two days ago, and had something similar happen in which two of the characters, on four different occasions, had so much dialogue in parts it was as though they were giving a speech instead of conversing.

In one area, the author had a female character asked one, simple, basic question, and her answer took two full pages of dialogue to answer. Well, that’s not true. She actually answered the question in two sentences, but then went on to tell the other person more things that the author wanted the reader to know, I guess, but it completely and totally did NOT fit with the story as dialogue.

The way to have fixed that would have been to have the other person in the conversation respond, ask her a question, something to prompt the additional dialogue, but instead, this women just went on and on for two pages.

Now, the first time I read that, I laughed and shook my head. I thought, OK, maybe he’s going to make her one of those dingy girls who just prattles on and on about everything when asked a simple questions, but as I read on, that was not the case.

This was a classic mistake of an author trying to tell the story in the dialogue and not in the text.

I use the example of the old hero/villain movies, where, at near the end of the movie, the villain basically gives a monologue where he summarizes all that’s happened before, why he did what he did, and reveals his secret plant to the hero, so the hero can, at the last minute, turn around and save the day.

YOU are the author, not your characters, and that means YOU have to tell the story. Don’t make your characters tell the story. They are, in essence, living the story. Except in very rare instances, your characters don’t know you are writing a book – they don’t know somebody is reading about them – all they know is what is happening in the story. If you slip and make your characters somehow talk to the reader, even if it’s in a way that doesn’t appear they are doing so, such as dropping information to the reader the character normally wouldn’t have said if there was no reader reading the story, your reader will not be able to feel the characters are ‘real’ while they are reading. They will FEEL like characters in a book, not real people the reader can care about, hate, love, or cry or feel something with.

For example, this morning, I woke up and took a shower. Every morning, I wake up and take a shower, and sometimes, I tell the people in my home I’m going to do this.

In a fiction story, that would go something like this:

Michelle woke from another restless night, unable to sleep well because of the pain. She was tired, cranky and sore, and felt a shower would be a good idea to start her day. In fact, she started most days by taking a shower in the mornings. It was her own personal way of rolling into the day slowly.

When she walked into the living room, she announced to her family, “I think I’m going to take a shower.”

Now, what I’m talking about in this other book I edited and what I don’t want you to do is to tell that part of the story in the dialogue. My example below should show you why this is a bad idea, and why you, the author, needs to tell your story and not your characters.

Michelle woke and walked into the living room and announced to her family, “I had another restless night and couldn’t sleep from the pain. I’m tired, cranky and sore. I think a shower is a good idea to start my day. In fact, I usually take showers every morning. It’s my personal way of rolling into my day slowly. Yes, I think I’m going to take a shower.”

Do you see the difference? Which one of those is more BELIEVABLE? Which one of those is more REAL?

While this example might seem a bit silly to you, or extreme, trust me when I say it’s only slightly so. I see and edit this all the time. You have to keep your characters real. You have to play the scene out in your mind as though they are real, living, breathing human beings and then write the dialogue only the way they would really talk in real life.

We don’t usually do monologues in real life, so your characters really shouldn’t do them either.

Dialogue in a story should be short, meant to convey some type of an exchange, important to the story, but not for furthering the plot of the story. We use the dialogue to bring the character’s to life, to make them real. We use the text and descriptive parts to tell the readers all the things that the ‘talking’ alone won’t convey.

So when you are writing fiction, when you go back and edit it, look for those places where you likely unknowingly told your story in your dialogue and remove it. If there’s something the reader needs to know, tell them in the descriptive text. Don’t make your characters tell your story for you.

Hope this helps – any questions?

Love and stuff,