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.