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Cut That Wimpy Dialogue!

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 14, 2011

Dialogue should be focused to further your plot or reveal character. If your characters sound weak, you steal from your story by reducing their appeal. Who wants to read about people less decisive and more wishy-washy than we are? Not your average reader. Here are some examples to illustrate my point.

Choose one of each:

“I think we should hit the beach at dawn. That way, we’ll probably be able to avoid the patrol boats.”
OR
“We’ll hit the beach at dawn to avoid the patrol boats.”

“It is my belief that it would be best if we took the right-hand path.”
OR
“Let’s make a right-hand turn.”

“I suppose I could agree.”
OR
“I agree.”

“I guess it would be all right if you borrowed my bracelet, but if you don’t mind, please try to return it tomorrow.”
OR
“You can borrow the bracelet, but I’d like it returned tomorrow.”

“Well, I don’t know. I suppose I could research it for you.”
OR
“I’ll find out and let you know by Monday.”

If you chose any “A” answers, you’re making your character sound weak. To strengthen your heroine, have her sound positive and determined. Characters should focus on their goals, not on their insecurities. Avoid phrases such as: I think, I guess, I suppose, maybe we should, it’s my belief that, or I don’t know.

Exceptions to the rule do exist. Just make certain your character doesn’t sound wimpy when he speaks or has an introspection. Cutting extra verbiage can help. Aim for precision of speech, but avoid curtness. Phrases that reveal hesitation or self-doubt may indicate places that need revision, unless it’s part of your character’s personal arc. Strong characters appeal to readers, so make every word count!

Do you have any examples from your own work that you can share?

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10 Responses to “Cut That Wimpy Dialogue!”

  1. Tightening dialogue is good, even if it’s not to avoid ‘wimpiness’. You asked for examples: Here’s a before and after from my upcoming release.

    “I hope so.” Hotshot’s grim expression sent a knife through Fozzie’s belly. “She’s severely dehydrated, plus she’s running a high fever. I can’t diagnose that, but let’s hope the local specialists are familiar with whatever bugs lurk here.”

    Sounded fine to me when I wrote it. But here’s the second version:

    “I hope so.” Hotshot’s grim expression sent a knife through Fozzie’s belly. “She’s dehydrated, running a high fever. The local specialists are probably familiar with whatever bugs lurk here.”

    In this case, I left in the :”probably” because they’re in unfamiliar territory and Hotshot doesn’t know what the level of local medical care is.

  2. Terry, I like your second version. It cuts out the unnecessary, “I can’t diagnose that.” and “Let’s hope.” A good example of how we tighten dialogue in revisions!

  3. I’m often guilty of inserting “Well…” into dialogue, or answering questions with a yes or no when just a solid answer would work better. For instance, “No, I won’t stand for it.” or “Yes, I think it’s wonderful.” Stronger would be “I won’t stand for it,” and “It’s wonderful.” I’m too lazy right now to hunt up better examples, but yours are all excellent and good reminders of little pitfalls we can fall into, sometimes without realizing it.

  4. Jeanne Meeks - said

    Good advice. Early on my writer’s group was good about red-lining weak sentences, so I’ve watched for them ever since. Still, after reading your post, I went back to book 1 and found a sentence to correct. In the beginning I intentional wrote my heroine as unsure of herself and dithering so that over the course of the book she could grow and become stronger. I didn’t like her as a dither-er, so the change in her character is now more subtle. I hope it works for my readers some day.

  5. Allison, I use “Well” or “No, I won’t because…” It sounds more natural that way, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much.Those don’t make the heroine sound weak. Jeanne, good luck to you. I hope it works for your readers, too!

  6. Good advice. There’s nothing more boring than dialogue that goes nowhere. And all those wishy-washy qualifiers such as “I think,” “I guess,” “I suppose” add up to a wishy-washy character.

  7. […] reading Nancy Cohen’s blog Cut That Wimpy Dialogue!, I thought about how much smoother and more interesting dialogue in books is in comparison to […]

  8. Pat, I’ve commented on your blog. You’re right in that real life conversation isn’t so smooth, but we don’t want to read it that way in our stories! Now I have to remember my own advice when I do my revisions.

  9. Nancy, you have the best writing tips ever! Thanks!

  10. Mary, thank you for visiting. Please spread the word!

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