Monday, June 8

Talking on Empty: The Perils of Empty Dialog

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There’s a lot of throat-clearing in writing. We often need to write for a little while to get the creative juices flowing and get into a scene (or writing session), and what we write is, well, less than stellar.

Nothing wrong with this, and some people advise writing a page or two in a journal or do a writing prompt before your session just to clear those starter words. But writers aren’t the only ones who can take a while to get to the point—characters can do it, too, especially when they run into each other in a scene.

I’m talking about empty dialog.

Empty dialog makes it feel as though we’re writing, but nothing is actually being said. It sounds like a real conversation, and feels like a natural exchange characters would have upon meeting one another. But take it out and the story loses nothing.

At best, empty dialog bogs down the scene and slows the pacing. At worst, it makes readers skim and lose interest in what’s going on—because nothing is going on.

These lines typically show up at the start and end of a conversation, though they can happen anywhere. For example (exaggerated to make a point, but this actually does make it into a scene more than you’d think):
“Hey Hector, man,” a guy from work, Chuck Something, called out, waving.

Like he had time for this. They stopped and shook hands. “Morning.”

“Good to see you.”

Hector nodded. “You, too.”

“Some day, huh?”

“Sure is.”

Chuck looked around, apparently in no hurry to leave. “I love days like this,” he said.

“Sunny and hot?”

“Yep. Great boat weather.”

“Ah. Listen, I gotta—”

“How about you? Having a good weekend?”

Hector twitched, picturing the body in his freezer he still didn’t know how to get rid of. “To die for.” Wait a sec… “Um, did you say you had a boat?”
That’s a lot of words that do nothing to advance the story, plot, or characterization, and also fail to set the scene or do any world building. It’s empty dialog and most of it isn’t needed at all.

Let’s look at how much tighter this would be (and more interesting) if we got rid of the empties.
“Hey Hector, man,” a guy from work, Chuck Something, called out, waving. They stopped and shook hands. “Some day, huh?”

Like he had time for this. “Sure is. Listen, I gotta—”

“I love days like this,” he said, apparently in no hurry to leave. “Great boat weather. You having a good weekend?”

Hector twitched, picturing the body in his freezer he still didn’t know how to get rid of. “To die for.” Wait a sec… “Um, did you say you had a boat?”
The narrative focus is tighter now, leading the conversation toward the boat and the fact that Chuck is a little clueless and might make a good pasty to help get rid of a body. There’s still enough of a dialog “delay” to give the impression that Chuck likes to talk and Hector wants out of there, but not so much that the reader feels the same way.

Dealing With Empty Dialog in Your Own Work

If you’re unsure if the dialog in a scene is a few quarts low or not, ask yourself:

1. If you took it out, would the meaning of the conversation change?

Empty dialog is empty precisely because it adds nothing to the scene.

2. Could you combine several lines into one, tighter line that accomplishes the same task?

If there are four lines that basically say “hello, how are you, we need to talk,” or the like, then one line is probably all you need. Skip the delays and get to the meat of the story.

3. Are you trying to delay the scene?

As in the above example, sometimes we add empty dialog because we want the scene to feel as though someone is dragging his feet. Instead of throwing in words that mean nothing, look for ways to deepen the scene or add additional information while giving the impression of awkward time passing.

One benefit to empty dialog is that it’s easy to get rid of since it’s not necessary. If you’re trying to trim down your word count, this is a good thing to add to your “things to cut” list.

Are you prone to empty dialog? Where do you most use it? If not, where do you most often see it? 

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. This is exactly the prompt I needed today. I must cut words from my first draft and this gives me a great tool to get started. Thanks, Janice. Perfect timing!

    1. Oh good! I love when that happens. My topic gremlins did their jobs well :)

  2. This is so on point. Thanks very much. I will be linking to this one on my blog.

  3. Great post. Such a good reminder. I love your suggestion to take it out and see what happens to the scene.

    1. Thanks! I cut and paste stuff in my wip all the time. It's an easy way to test different approaches.