You don’t want to miss any opportunities to present dialogue. Sometimes, though, you should not present dialogue directly; instead, you should present it indirectly, meaning that it should be summarized, a.k.a., paraphrased. For example, two people meet and say something like this:
“Hi, Bob. How are you doing today?”
“I’m fine, John. How are you?”
“I’m good, thanks. How are your wife and kids?”
“They’re doing great. How about yours?”
Dialogue like this is unnecessary as well as boring. Don’t include everyday chitchat. You must get right to the point for having a conversation—to the real reason why the people are talking. Dialogue has been called “conversation’s greatest hits.” This means you should include only the most meaningful words and ideas, just as you give readers only the most significant physical details in a scene. When you use only meaningful dialogue, it helps to advance the story and develop characterization. You could summarize insignificant dialogue or, better yet, don’t include it at all.
Neither should you use dialogue where one person tells another one information that the reader already knows. That’s when you should summarize that information and say something like this:
He told her how he had discovered Johnson’s body that morning and what he had found in his apartment.
Furthermore, in order to save space—remember, economy is one hallmark of good writing—and to keep things moving, summarize dialogue of secondary importance yet important enough to communicate useful info or create images, or both, that help enlarge the story in some way. Example:
So Virgil never got to go ashore. One of the midshipmen who did, delivering messages to the consulate, said the city was full of beggars and Spanish soldiers; he said people walked in the middle of the street, rode horses holding umbrellas over their head, and the women wore so much white face powder they looked like they were dead. Virgil said he’d like to see them anyway. The midshipman said don’t step in the gutters; some places there was poop in the gutters. He said hey, he bet that’s why everybody walked in the middle of the street. — Elmore Leonard, Cuba Libre
Summary dialogue like this delivers info and imagery to readers quickly.
As you review your text, consider each section of dialogue carefully, asking yourself, Do these words need to be spoken aloud, or should I rewrite this part as indirect dialogue?
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Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.
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