For a fictional story to feel real, readers must believe that the universe our characters inhabit existed long before first paragraph and will continue to exist long after the last one (unless you are a nihilist and blow up your universe at the end).
That means each fictional universe has a timeline (even those zany time-travel stories I am not clever enough to write). We need not concern ourselves with the post-story timeline or most of what happened before the story started, since those things do not directly affect the characters. When it comes to writing dialog, though, knowing the character-specific events in the pre-story timeline is critical. Because if our characters haven’t “lived” those unwritten moments, lame dialog may result.
A mother is harping on her teenage daughter to clean her messy room, but her emotion level is disproportionately high for the situation. The daughter, prone to outbursts of clunky exposition, says, “Ever since Dad died, you’ve been taking your anger out on me!”
Two inmates are walking the yard at the penitentiary. Hank, worried about Cletus’s terrible memory, summarizes, “I can’t believe that I’ve spent 15 long years in this joint for a crime I didn’t commit. But, by the grace of God, I just have to survive one more day, because they granted me parole and I will be released tomorrow!”
A husband serves his wife with divorce papers. Inclined to speak in expository list form, she says, “First you pushed my mother-in-law down the stairs and tried to make it look like an accident, then you cheated on me with my yoga instructor, and now you have the nerve to divorce me?”
These examples all suffer from the same problem: The characters are talking about things they would logically have discussed ages ago… because they already “lived” through them, even if we didn’t write about it. The daughter wouldn’t wait until that moment to mention her mother’s behavior for the first time, since she is clearly aware that Mom’s behavior has changed since her father died. Hank wouldn’t need to give his pal a rundown of what has gone on in his life for 15 years, because Cletus has been seen it happen. And I’m sure the husband and wife have already discussed the yoga-teacher affair at length.
Writing good dialog involves many elements. Relative to today’s discussion, though, a writer can improve her dialog by making sure the answer to the following question is “yes”: Is this dialog exchange in its logical place on the timeline?
With that in mind, here’s how I would rewrite the dialog in the above examples:
#1 – Daughter, as soon as her mom finishes screaming about the messy room: “I didn’t give Dad cancer, Mom.”
Without exposition or histrionics, we know that Dad is probably dead (and that will be clear soon enough anyway), and that Mom has been overreacting to minor issues involving her daughter ever since. Plus, it’s more cutting and hurtful, which reveals the dynamic between them more clearly.
#2 – Hank, to Cletus, whom he has known for years: “You know how many thousands of times I’ve walked this damn yard in the past 15 years? Well, this is the last lap I’ll ever do.”
Hank is still saying something Cletus knows, but now the line has a wistful, hopeful quality, because Hank is about to experience a big life change.
Tragically, Hank is stabbed to death that night by a mysterious figure cloaked in black, thus setting up the new bestselling mystery series Cletus McPhatter – Prison Detective.
#3 – First of all, I’d rather read about the mother-in-law getting pushed down the stairs than about someone handing someone else a legal document, so that’s the story I’d tell. However, I didn’t make up this scenario. Well, maybe I did, but let’s just go with it. I’m jonesin’ for some Taco Bell and want to finish this post.
The wife, after her husband hands her divorce papers: “After all the shit you’ve put me through…”
There’s no need to restate the existence of the divorce papers through dialog. When a bartender asks for your ID, you don’t say, “Here, I’m handing you my driver’s license,” do you? Plus, now we are curious about what horrible things he has done to his wife.
That’s it. I’m off to get a volcano taco. Please share your thoughts below.