They say that every word should count.
Unfortunately, “they” say a lot of things— and not all of their words count. In fact, in most conversations, people repeat themselves, say meaningless half-sentences and fragments before stopping, or just grunt expressively. Most of these verbal effects are impossible to convey in written dialogue, so we take them out and replace them with concise statements, full sentences, and blocking to show character. Every word must count.
Even so… in dialogue, even stylized dialogue that you find in fiction, you see plenty of meaningless phrases. “How are you?” “I’m fine.” Unless the statement directly opposes the obvious (such as a broken leg), it doesn’t do anything but fill space and make each word mean less.
Is that a big problem? No, of course not. You can use “I’m fine” as much as you want and no one is going to take off points. But you know amazing writing by the way every word counts, even “I’m fine”.
Take an example, the line that inspired this post. In the movie Serenity (sequel to all of Firefly), the characters are involved in a high-tech car chase— they’re on a little open-topped hovercraft and their pursuers are on a spaceship, and they’re zipping around the geography chasing each other. Along on the journey is Simon Tam’s little sister, River, who is often crazy and occasionally psychic. Simon looks out for her, but on this run there was no room for him to come. So River is caught in a spaceship chase without her big brother. Things are exciting, people are hurt, and metal objects go boom— all as expected, and the good guys barely come out on top, back at their spaceship. Simon immediately rushes to River’s side and asks her if she’s all right. River responds, “I swallowed a bug.”
Notice: it isn’t just “I’m fine”. It’s “I swallowed a bug”. It isn’t “Oh, gosh, Simon, someone just got shot and several people died back there and how could you ask me if I’m fine?” It’s “I swallowed a bug.” No statement would better fit her personality as a slightly crazy little girl, both obsessed with her own little world and the workings of the universe at once, than that.
This is what I mean by making every word count. I don’t mean every word, that you should go through your manuscript word by word and make sure each one works; I mean every statement, every sentence, every line of dialogue. Everything should advance plot, add character, or entertain— and most things should do all three. This is how to make dialogue count.
Sometimes when you watch or read fiction, you begin to predict what the characters will say before they say it. Often, it’s not based on the characters’ personalities— it’s based on normal English, and the way you’d hear people speak in everyday life. Common phrases, figures of speech, and even vocal inflection can become predictable just because we hear them all the time. Even the way people emphasize points (in threes for best effect) is predictable, and you can mouth along with them the words they’ll say before you really know.
Is this just a problem for the over-zealous writer, who tries to figure out how they would write the conversation? No, I don’t think so. Anyone can pick up on those phrases in use in any conversation. Thus, it’s the writer’s responsibility to make the dialogue unique, unpredictable, and memorable.
Often when I’m writing dialogue, I’ll be able to predict what my characters will say in the same way I do with fiction. This allows me to write it faster, but is it better? Not necessarily. Again, predictable dialogue isn’t bad, but it isn’t spectacular. I need to learn to stop, when I begin predicting my own dialogue, and figure out something better, something that fits the characters’ personalities.
Occasionally the characters’ personalities are predictable as well— that happens, but it isn’t always the case. Often the predictable dialogue consists of mundane things like “How are you?” “I’m fine.” Unless that fits really well with the character, find something different. It’s difficult, but it’s possible and it’ll make your dialogue a lot better and a lot more revealing in terms of character.
How do you find something to replace it, though? “I’m fine” is a rather vague statement— it means what it says, and you don’t really need to say anything else. If every word should count, those two words should be enough. If they aren’t, what is?
Instead of looking at the words themselves, look at the meaning behind them. Saying “I’m fine” tells the audience very clearly that the character is unhurt and unbothered by what they just saw. But ask yourselves, how can you show that? How can you show that the character is the same as she ever was?
In River’s case, “I swallowed a bug” is perfect. It’s the crazy thing she would care about, spoken in the wondrous way she has of looking at the world. It shows, rather than tells, that she is unchanged. If she were in pain, she’d be screaming. If she were horrified by the death she saw, she would be gibbering on the floor. Instead, she’s the same as she ever was.
That’s the tricky part of this. See beyond what you’re telling through mundane dialogue; figure out how to show it through another statement. Perhaps the statement itself means nothing to the plot or character, but what it shows is worth so much more.
Try it. When you find yourself blindly typing the predictable conversation flowing through your mind— or if you’re editing and come across such a conversation— make it better. Take the mundane statements you hear in every conversation and change them, make them show who the character is and what they’re feeling in this moment. It will put you head and shoulders above the rest.