Small Talk

When writing, too often my characters get stuck making small talk. Conversation and dialogue are strengths of mine (I flatter myself), and I love to write dialogue. The problem is that my dialogue is not always plot critical. Heck, most of the time I have to delete whole swaths of small talk because it’s not actually important to the story. Because I enjoy writing adventure stories, small talk can become a real momentum killer.

On the flip side, small talk is a great way to learn more about a character. How they handle the everyday gossip, or accept a drink, or argue – these tell the reader so much about the mentality of that character! And I have a fine collection of vibrant secondary characters who love to chat.

So, how do we learn to walk the line between too much conversation and good character development?

Well, first I think it is good to write out the full conversation your characters want to have. They want to spend five pages trading barbs and debating apples and oranges? Let them – get it out of your system. Don’t tamp down their voices. That lets you, the author, get a better idea of where they’re coming from. Maybe it will give you a trait you can use later.

Second, you must have the plot point in mind. So they’re in a bar, arguing – what is the next active point in the story? Do you know that you want character A to wake up the next day, or perhaps announce a journey or decision which has not been discussed yet? How can you transition from the talk to the action? Perhaps another character arrives, or a momentary distraction breaks up the conversation. Even the tongue in cheek ender of “Well, this gets us nowhere” might be an option. But know where you want to end up, eventually, so you don’t peter out into silence, the way most small talk does eventually.

Finally, edit it down. You write it all out, find out where you really want to end, and then you start cutting. Maybe not all of it – like I said, I love small talk – but you can see where the breaks in conversation occur naturally. We utilize them in everyday life, and unless you’re trying to stylize like Ayn Rand, your characters will have breathing moments too. Perhaps a section which rehashes an earlier point can be trimmed out, or a slow bit can be where the interruption happens.
In particular, I watch for:


  • Repetition: In real life we might rehash a problem multiple times in the course of an evening. Characters might want to as well, but I think that makes for boring reading. Limit the number of times a character can bring up the same point in conversation.
  • Over-wit: Being clever with words is a lot of fun, but it can cloud the point. Make sure you aren’t writing wit to show off your own cleverness. Not all characters are from The Philadelphia Story (great film – go watch it immediately). I fall into this sometimes – I’m so pleased with my word play I forget the setting and the need for movement.
  • Overshadowing: You might have a character other than the protagonist making some excellent points, or some real zingers. Great, but are you going to have that character in use throughout the story? No? Then maybe you shouldn’t give them so much space. It’s harsh, but unless you’re going to change their place in the story, they don’t get to hog the spotlight. This is especially true if you have a large cast of characters.

Anyway I’m writing this little essay because I just deleted yet another chunk of dialogue that simply goes nowhere. I mean, I enjoy having these two secondary characters express themselves, but they’re not my protagonist, nor is the conversation entirely important. They’re setting up the background for the upcoming conflict, and as such it’s useful. However, I feel something gnawing at me as I reread it – the conversation is not going anywhere. These two secondary characters could keep arguing throughout the night, and still be unresolved because the larger plot won’t be truly set in motion for another chapter or two.

Here’s how I’ve chosen to resolve it:
The protagonist eavesdrops for a few lines, then joins the conversation. She gives her opinions, and the argument is about to be rehashed when second main character arrives and interrupts the conversation with question about immediate action. Thus my protagonist can announce her intention for the next chapter, while tabling the bigger plot arc for later. Drinks are shared. I can pick up on the next morning.


If this is of any use to you, then I’m glad.


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