Friday, March 14, 2014

Short Cuts- When Are They Okay?

In writing you can't take short cuts. You have to learn the rules. Have to spend the time on the research. Have to read your writing again and again to perfect it with edits.

But there is one area where short cuts aren't frowned upon, but encouraged. I'm talking about dialogue!

When creating dialogue to put in the mouths of your characters, you need short cuts. You want your conversations to feel like they could actually be spoken by real people.

You don't want characters to sound unnatural or even worse stiff. (Exception if you're showing the character is stiff and awkward.) There are a couple of obvious tricks to accomplish the natural feel.

Experts recommend doing a little eavesdropping. Listen in on stranger's conversations. Pay attention to your own. What will you notice?

First off, you'll hear that people take short cuts when they speak. People are lazy. Why spell everything out when you can shorten? They leave out words. They use contractions. 

Next you'll learn people use slang to make conversations even shorter. Why say a whole phrase when one word covers it all? 

And if something is understood between the parties speaking, they're not going to mention it all. 

For example these people use reasonably correct grammar:

"Hello. How are you doing?" he asked. 
"I am good," she said.
"Do you want to come to the basketball game at our high school this Friday night with me?"
She blushed. "That would be fun."

It's very stiff. Very unnatural.

Now here it is again with shortcuts:

"Hey. How's  it?" he asked.
"Good." she said.
"Wanna go to the game Friday?"
She blushed. "Awesome!"

The better people/characters know each other, obviously, the more shortcuts they will take when speaking with each other. Shortcuts can clue the reader in to the depth of a relationship, showing how well characters know each other. You want it to be more formal with strangers, more informal with friends and family.

What kind of game and where it takes place is something understood between them. For it to actually be included in the conversation is to lead or clue the reader. Sometimes it's necessary to throw out clues for the reader. In this case, it might be better to add 'basketball' back into the equation.

"Hey. How's  it?" he asked.
"Good." she said.
"Wanna go to the basketball game Friday?"
She blushed. "Awesome!"

An exaggerated example of leading the reader:

Mom says, "Do not forget to pick up the paper and get the mail while we leave you alone and go to Niagara Falls in New York for the whole weekend."
I roll my eyes. "Yes, Mom."

Would Mom really have to mention where they are going and for how long? Wouldn't daughter know this fact already? Putting this information in dialogue is a clumsy way to clue the reader.

Here's a different option:

Mom says, "Don't forget to get the mail and the paper while we're gone."
I roll my eyes. Did Mom think thieves were going to break in while her parents went to Niagara Falls for one weekend? "Yes, Mom."

Leading in dialogue rarely comes across as natural. It just feels hokey and forced. But if you can manage the same thing by using internal thoughts you can also add voice and attitude to your character. Letting the reader get to know the character and her opinions is a bonus.

So to be short ('cause I feel I know ya'). Take shortcuts in dialogue. Drop words. Use contractions. Use slang. Don't lead. 

Have fun.


  1. Also, it's supremely helpful if you read your dialogue aloud! Sometimes, it looks okay on the page, but when you actually hear it, you realize the rhythm is off. Easiest way I've found to fix clunky dialogue.

  2. So true! Dialogue is so hard to write naturally, mostly because it is so sparse.