Tuesday, May 22, 2007

An Interesting Writing Tip

"Easy reading is damn hard writing."
~Nathaniel Hawthorne

At my local RWA chapter meeting last month, one of the members, a published author, shared a piece of writing advice that was so simple and yet so profound (for me, anyway). Here it is:

When two characters are talking, don't have either one of them say something they both already know.

I had never heard that piece of advice before, but it makes perfect sense, when you think about it. For instance, you wouldn't have this kind of conversation between two best friends:

Jill: Steve hasn't called. It's been three days since I told him about the baby. [The best friend would most likely already know this.] What am I supposed to do? [The first sentence is new information, so it can stay. The question at the end can stay too. But the middle one, old news, should be taken out.]

Sharlene: Well, you could wait him out. He's done this before, you know. Remember the time you caught him in bed with your cousin? [These last 2 sentences are the author trying to put in back story. Jill most likely doesn't need any reminding about the cousin.]

Jill: Yeah, but he said he'd been drugged and didn't know how he got there. [Again, Sharlene as the best friend would already know this.]

Sharlene: So call his cell phone. His boss'll have a fit if he gets a call on the jobsite, but if he's ignoring your messages, he deserves it. [The first sentence, a new piece of advice/info, would be okay. The second would be something that Jill, carrying this guy's baby, would probably know.]

So, a revising of the above conversation would look something like this:

Jill: Steve still hasn't called. What am I supposed to do?

Sharlene: Well, you could wait him out. Or call his cell phone.

After that brief exchange, I'd probably continue the conversation with new ideas about how to deal with Steve, or maybe Jill's feelings about the fact she's carrying some schmuck's baby. Most important, it would be all new information. The only exception to this that I can think of would be when a character repeats information for effect or emphasis. Otherwise, eliminating all the extra info above makes for tighter writing and more believable dialogue.

I just love this advice and am applying it to my edits and my current WIP.

Try it -- you might find it helpful too!


Marianne Arkins said...

I read a published book that was full of that kind of dialogue. I even blogged about it.

That's not to say that I remember not to do it! LOL...


ollie1976 said...

very clear and simple advice-thank you.

Diane Craver said...

Thanks for the writing tip, Allie.
I hope I'm not guilty of having characters give information they both already know. I'll keep this in mind as I write my new book. I like the Hawthorne quote!

fredcharles said...

Yep. I usually employ this when it comes to exposition. I write fantasy, so it can be hard to introduce some elements of the world, since the characters live there, and know everything.

Anonymous said...

Great tip, Allie :)
I love visiting your blog and reading your writing tips.

Rebecca said...

yes - It is SO obvious and clunky when an author does this - and it makes the dialogue seem utterly contrived and artificial (and boring)