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My story Cured (which I've asked about before, but has undergone major revisions since then), has an extremely large section of dialogue that annoys my beta tester. I agree with her that it should be shortened, but I'm not sure how.

The purpose of the dialogue is to move from the plot element of the main character Tony breaking up with his girlfriend to the the next plot element where he starts taking a pill to increase his empathy.

That dialogue can be found here. Please note that Jad, is supposed to sound academic and is the main character's room-mate.

How do I shorten this dialogue? General rules for keeping dialogue brief are also helpful.

Here is what I've tried to remember:

  1. A dialogue should have two dimensions. What is being said, but also what is implied.
  2. That telling a reader about a character is ineffective, that it is best to show their actions without explicitly reasoning about them afterwards.
  3. Excessive description will pull a reader out of the dialogue.
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First: more body language. It'll make the remaining dialog lines flow better. And was the first speaker a therapist or sth? S/he was discussing relationships so s/he should be more... interactive. Body language will help with variety and might shorten some otherwise unwieldy spoken lines. Second, avoid redundancy whenever viable. A reader's working memory is much better than a listener's so your dialog doesn't need to be as low-entropy as spoken dialog. I only skimmed through so don't hold me to it. –  Mussri Sep 10 '13 at 9:24
    
If you could give me an example that contrasted the use of body-language vs. the use of no body-language, I would upvote your answer. If you don't want to, I might make my own example. –  Seanny123 Sep 10 '13 at 10:28
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2 Answers

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With dialogue, you have to be excruciatingly careful to make sure that nobody says anything that the other person already knows, or already would know from what the speaker just said.

Here's one example. You have two people talking. They are discussing that one of them was apart from his girlfriend for the summer. One of them says, "Now that I'm back..." STOP. The person IS back. Both people in the conversation KNOW he's back. There is absolutely no reason for him to refer to his being back. You think you have to mention it because you think it's an essential part of the logic of what happened between this guy and his girlfriend, but since it's an obvious part of the scene happening between the two people talking, they wouldn't say it to each other. They would both understand that he means "Now that I'm back" when he simply says "Now." And nothing more. Get it? You have to pay very careful attention to what people would REALLY say to each other at any moment given the precise circumstances of the conversation.

Another thing you do that lengthens your dialogue unnecessarily is you use the word "that" frequently. "I found out that she..." "We learned that it was not..." These are not actual examples from your writing, they are just examples. Drop the "that" from these phrases; it is unnecessary and clunky.

As a more general concept, it's essential to keep in mind people do not speak in complete sentences, nor do they use correct grammar, nor do they allow each other to finish sentences. If you want to shorten your dialogue and simultaneously make it sound more real, you have to clip it into tiny pieces. And remember it takes only a few words to get your point across.

Check out this version of a segment of your dialogue:

"She says I'm 'emotionally unresponsive.' What's that?

"You ask her?"

"My heart was shattered! Wait -- you agree with her?!

"Honest answer?

I grab some jujubes to steel myself.

"Sure."

"Maybe she feels you don't connect -- "

"Connect?"

"Emotionally, with others."

"I understand people!"

Just something to give you an idea of how brief and punchy dialogue can be. You can see how fast that moves, and gets the point across better because there are fewer distractions.

A good tip for learning to write good dialogue would be to read a bunch of screenplays of really good movies. That's where good dialogue is at a premium.

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Disclaimer: Dialogue is not my strength

I think the problem is not that the dialogue is too long, but the fact that there's too much repetition and lack of variation. You do have some of the latter at the beginning and at the end. But in the middle, almost all the dialogue consist on two lines (and each sentences has pretty much the same length)

Another thing you could do is to write more "incomplete" sentences. That makes dialogue sound more natural and less formal (I think you're was a little bit too formal/academic).

If it was me, I would edit it like this. Hope it helps.

Jad's wiry frame barely makes a dent in the couch cushion and he's jittery like he usually is when he's planning something. He reaches into his pocket and takes out his stress ball, rolling it between his hands like a therapist starting a timer.

"Given the evidence, I'm going to hypothesize Abby broke up with you." he says.

"Yeah," I said. "According to her, we drifted apart over the summer. When we were on different sides of the country. Now that I'm back, she understands that it wasn't just the distance. She thinks I'm not 'emotionally responsive' enough. What does that even mean?"

"Why didn't you ask her?"

"It's hard to think when your heart is shattered. What? You agree with her? , I dare to ask, making an uncomfortable amount of eye contact with him to read his expression.

"Ah, well.Want the honest answer to that question?", he replies, continuing to stare straight ahead at the slapstick comedy movie posters adorning our wall.

I grab another handful of jujubes in preparation.

"Hit me."

"I think she means you don't connect emotionally with other people. She maybe doubts you even know how to connect with yourself."

"Let's start with the first point. You don't seem to be able to sympathize with anyone or to imagine anyone complexly."

"What? I understand people."

"The first thing you said after I introduced you to my friend Dev was that he smelled pretty good for a hippy."

"It was a joke. I've never met a person with dreadlocks that wasn't a hippy. Not like I told you he wasn't allowed in our apartment anymore."

"OK, anyway. Second. What is it that you are actually working towards? You hate your studies and you've never mentioned any side projects."

“Why do I need 'work towards something'? Anyways, even if you're right and I do need to fix these 'problems', what can I do about that?”

"Okay. One question at a time. There's nothing wrong with being happy. You asked about improvement in the first place. As to what you can do about it. What do you want to achieve anyways?"

"Closure? I want to see if she's right, I guess. "

"Do you think she's right?"

"No?"

"I think our old friend the scientific method could help here. What if you tried being more caring? You know fake it until you make it and analyse the results."

"How do I fake that?"

"You can try cognitive behavior therapy.”

“That sounds like something out of a self-help book.”

Maybe there's something we can print.”

OK, maybe I messed up a bit the dialogue. But what I wanted to show you is how to apply what I just said. Also, keep in mind that not everything that your beta readers said is what they actually mean. For example, since your beta reader is a woman (I just assuming here, this may not be true for all people) she felt overwhelmed (or bored) by all the "logic" and "analysis" of the dialogue. I think most women don't like that (every time I start talking like this my girlfriend she starts yawning). So, since she felt bored, she felt the dialogue was very long.

And in some way I think I agree with her. I would rather prefer reading a dialogue strong in emotions and imagery rather than a dialogue that feels like an academic paper. This doesn't mean your dialogue is bad. I'm sure many people would prefer this kind of dialogue.

This is an example of imagery you could have used to "show" us how detached Tony feels:

"You know, sometimes I feel there's a thick wall between people and me. And I'm holding this hammer, trying so hard to break it. Though no matter how much time I spend on it, it never cracks. Not even a bit. I want really badly to see the person on the other side. But I never succeed."

(Of course this is my style. You can use any kind you like).

Feel free to ignore the points that didn't make sense. And take those you think will work for you. Good luck!

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You mentioned the imagery before and I have seen it (and enjoyed it's usage) in your other work. I will try to consider it's usage more often. I've also never considered the variation of the length of dialogue as important. That was quite insightful. –  Seanny123 Sep 10 '13 at 10:29
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