Eric Sasson: Say What You Need To, And No More

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Very often new (and sometimes not-so-new) writers forget how important it is to create the right kind of dialogue for a story. Dialogue is not simply a way for our characters to communicate with one another, but rather the way a writer can communicate who her characters are, and how they express (or don’t express) themselves with others. The vast majority of dialogue will occur in dramatic scene, be it a present action scene or exposition/backstory, and in each case dialogue, along with the gestures that accompany it, is how readers get to experience our characters outside the “guiding hand” of our first and third person narrators.

I strongly believe in clipped dialogue. By this I mean I try to boil down my characters’ intentions to their essences, and have them say only as much as is necessary. Many writing teachers will tell you that this is better because it mimics real life. Quite the opposite! Dialogue in stories should not be like real life. In our real lives, we ramble, we go off on tangents, and we are notoriously, tediously redundant. (Ok, maybe you aren’t, but many people are.) We can’t afford to be so indulgent in our stories.

Another question we have to ask ourselves is how direct we want our characters to be. Human beings tend to be oblique. Having our characters respond clearly and precisely to one another feels artificial and can knock the tension right out of the scene. By focusing instead on what’s left unsaid, and allowing others to connect dots we leave unconnected, we create a more gratifying experience for our readers.

One more pet peeve of mine, common among writing instructors, is dialogue that relies on adverbs and fancy synonyms for the word “said” to somehow convey its intentions. Adverbs are often lazy substitutes, and the better writer should be able to express the gist of the adverb within the dialogue itself. As for “exclaimed,” “exhorted,” “retorted,” and the like, always ask yourself: what do these words convey that the pure and simple “said” cannot? Usually the answer is nothing.

Of course there are always the exceptions to these rules. Salinger’s prose thrives on expansive, indulgent dialogue, and in the movies, Tarantino has built his entire career on characters who talk far more than necessary. This is the world that they are building, and since they set this out from the get-go, we buy into it.

Compare the following two exchanges:

1. “How are you feeling, Joe?” Barbara asked, feigning concern.
“Not very well, Barbara,” Joe replied, sarcastically. “I have cancer.”
“That’s terrible!” Barbara exclaimed, despondently. “I was planning on leaving you, and now I’m going to have to tread carefully.”
“I suspected as much,” Joe retorted. ”The fact that you could leave me in my hour of need disgusts me.”

2. “I’m concerned,” Barbara said. Her phone began to ring. She took it out and stared at it before putting it back into her purse.
“Sure you are,” Joe said. “And now that we know…”
“We know, we know,” Barbara said. She sighed. “There are so many things we know now.”
“You don’t have to stick around,” Joe said.
“You’re being ridiculous, Joe—“
He could hear the phone vibrating in her purse.
“You should answer that,” Joe said. “It might be important.”

Now I realize these are crude examples, but hopefully they make my point. The first example spells everything out for us, and even adds those pesky adverbs, just in case we didn’t get it. What is left unsaid in the second example is precisely what intrigues us and compels us to keep reading.

Keep the mystery alive. Say what you need to, and no more. Readers like to do a bit of work.

A regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal Online, Eric Sasson received his MA in Creative Writing from NYU and has taught fiction writing at the Sackett Street Writers Workshop. His short story collection, “Margins of Tolerance,” was the 2011 Tartt First Fiction Award runner-up and was published by Livingston Press in May 2012. His stories have been nominated for the Robert Olen Butler prize, the Pushcart Prize, and one is forthcoming in The Best Gay Stories 2013. Other recent publication credits include stories published in Explosion Proof, Connotation Press, BLOOM, Nashville Review, The Puritan, Liquid Imagination, and THE2NDHAND, among others. In 2012 he was awarded a Tennessee Williams scholarship to the Sewanee Writers Conference as well as residency fellowships to Ragdale and the Hambidge Center in Georgia. He was born, bred, and still resides in Brooklyn, NY.