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Jacqueline Vick on Clean Dialogue

Jacqueline Vick is the author of the Harlow Brothers series and the Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic series of cozy mysteries. You can find out more about her on her website, www.jacquelinevick.com, or by clicking here, read her last post here, and buy her books here.

When I first came to Los Angeles, I was privileged to take a screenwriting course with Danny Simon, the older brother of Neil Simon. Danny spent his writing career in television and had wisdom galore on how to keep your scripts clean. One of his rules was to “cut the orange juice” from the dialogue.

An example of this would be a morning scene in the kitchen.

JEFF: Good morning.

LYLA: Good morning. Did you sleep well?

JEFF: Very well, thank you.

LYLA: Would you like some orange juice?

JEFF: I’d love some orange juice.

Lyla pours him orange juice.

LYLA: Here you go. One orange juice.

One way this scene might work is if the couple had only met last night, had a one-night stand, and were now feeling awkward. The subtext would be, “What am I going to say to you? Let me find something safe.” But in a normal scene between characters? Deadly dull. No one cares about the orange juice or how Jeff slept except Lyla and Jeff.

In other words, cut out the unnecessary dialogue.

Time for a confession. I’m a dialogue junkie. Sometimes I think I should be writing plays. Come to think of it, I have. The fast-paced, witty dialogue in a movie like His Girl Friday sends me over the moon.

In Nero Wolfe novels, Archie Goodwin often talks to annoy people, especially Wolfe, or to give himself time to think. The difference between Archie and poor Jeff and Lyla is that his jabber serves a purpose. It’s part of his character.

But shouldn’t the dialogue sound real? Good heavens, no! In real life, we often take the long route to make a point. I remember working with one woman whose train of thought would jump rails three or four times before she reached her destination. If she reached it. I dreaded asking her questions. Even a simple query required a major time commitment. An example:

ME: Did you get those figures from Mister Jones?

HER: I had an appointment with him yesterday at his office. The one located next door to Yummy’s Bakery. Have you ever eaten at Yummy’s? Their donuts are the best. I really should pick some up for the hubby. He loves them. But maybe I shouldn’t. He’s gained a few pounds this year. But anyway, I went to his office—did I tell you I broke my heel in the lobby? My new pair of Jimmy Choos. I should go buy another pair while they are on sale at—is it Nordstrom’s or Neiman Marcus that has them on sale? I hope it’s Nordstrom’s. Their closer to home. So, to answer your question…

ME: What question?

Whereas I needed the above woman’s response for my work, bored (or confused) readers can close the book and move on to the next novel.

The question to ask is whether the dialogue informs the reader about the character or moves the story forward. Everything else goes. The response from the woman in my office would tell a lot about her character, but I would use her voice sparingly. I know I got tired just writing it.  

Jacqueline Vick

Jacqueline Vick combined satirical humor and the quirks of her ginger mutt to create the Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mysteries. Additionally, she is the author of the Harlow Brothers mystery series, featuring a former college linebacker who secretly writes the Aunt Civility Etiquette book. You can find out more about her on her website, jacquelinevick.com, or follow her on Instagram.

This Post Has 26 Comments

  1. gpgottlieb
    gpgottlieb

    Uh oh, I talk like your friend, in circles, with lots of digressions – hope I can stop my characters from doing the same.

    1. Avatar
      Jacqueline Vick

      I think we writers all do because we spend so much time alone. When he have a live human being to talk to, we are catching up and everything in our head pours o out. 🙂

  2. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Good tip Jackie! You’re right, some authors are better at it than others. Your Harlow Brothers mysteries, for example, have good concise dialogue. (I’m reading one now!) Sometimes I struggle to keep out the OJ. When that happens, it ends up on the cutting room floor anyway.

  3. Avatar
    Jacqueline Vick

    There wouldn’t be a rule if we all didn’t do it, right? HA!

    1. Avatar
      Laurie Story

      I’ll remember the orange juice tip! Thanks for tackling dialogue

  4. Avatar
    saralynrichard

    You had me at Danny Simon. I’d love to have been able to take a class from him! Or, now–you.

    1. Avatar
      Jacqueline Vick

      He was an excellent teacher and he had many stories. It was an honor.

  5. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Great tips! The OJ image makes it memorable. And I know that I jabber on when I have the rare occasion to encounter a real live human being!

    1. Avatar
      Jacqueline Vick

      I’m right there with you. I almost need to cover my mouth to stop the flow!

  6. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    All good points. If we wrote the way we talk, the book would be the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

    1. Avatar
      Jacqueline Vick

      Very true. Fortunately, none of the Blackbirds give into this.

  7. Donna Rewolinski
    Donna Rewolinski

    Great blog because it’s true. It brings back memories of my first year in a writer’s critique group running through my first novel. The phrases from the writers were often said like, “I had dialogue fatigue.” or “How does this move the story along?” Sometimes more is not better, it’s just more.

  8. Avatar
    Laurie Buchanan

    Jacqueline — Oh, I love the chatty example you gave. I KNOW that person!

  9. Avatar
    Jacqueline Vick

    We all do, don’t we? Sometimes I AM that person, probably more often than I like to think.

  10. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    P.S. Jacqueline, I love His Girl Friday! Such zippy, compact dialogue. In fact, I find myself studying dialogue when watching movies, especially those from the ’30s and ’40s. Gary Grant (The Philadelphia Story) and William Powell (The Thin Man series) movies are exemplary, IMHO.

    1. Sharon Lynn
      Sharon Lynn

      And Bring Up Baby!

  11. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    Great post on dialogue! Bad dialogue is easy. Good dialogue is very hard! You’ve hit on several key elements that everyone should remember when writing.

    1. Avatar
      Jacqueline Vick

      I love Bringing Up Baby. They really knew snappy dialogue back then.

  12. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    They certainly did! Great screenwriters and actors back in the day.

  13. joyribar
    joyribar

    Thanks for the tip on dialogue. I struggle to make it sound real. I suffer from explaining too much at times. My mind goes in circles: just because I know what I mean, is it clear to others? That’s when I usually end up saying too much – like in this comment. Thanks, Jackie.

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