When Chitchat Takes the Wheel

Dialogue is a challenge. It’s got to sound real, but it can’t be too real because in real life people often go on at great length without saying much of anything. If your characters go on at great length without moving the plot forward in some way, your readers will zone out. (For some tips about writing dialogue, see “4 Ways to Write Better Dialogue” and “Monologue About Dialogue.“)

I recently critiqued two first-novel manuscripts. Both were rich with promising material, and both bogged down in endless stretches of what I can only call chitchat: the protagonist talking with friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances about things that had nothing to do with plot or subplot.

What to do when you come upon long rambling dialogue while revising your own work or critiquing someone else’s? Here’s an idea: Ask what the writer is avoiding. (The writer, need I say, can be you.)

In one of the manuscripts I was working on, the chitchat was occasionally interrupted by passionate monologues by different characters (rarely the protagonist). These monologues had plenty to do with the plot, but they read like position papers, not fiction.

Travvy tries to persuade a tractor to move.

Travvy carries on a one-sided dialogue with an offstage tractor.

These monologues did serve an important purpose, however: they made it clear that the characters disagreed with each other strenuously and eloquently on issues that were not only important in themselves but closely related to major themes in the novel. I knew that this material could fuel riveting, even dramatic dialogue — if only the writer would let the characters engage with each other.

It wasn’t hard to see why this writer was reluctant to do this. Both she and her protagonist are dealing with explosive issues that people have a hard time talking about without blowing up.

Writing takes courage. Often when we set out on a journey we don’t know how much will be asked of us. If we did know, we might not take the first step. But as we travel, we become braver, more willing to open closed doors and break new trail. Revision works the same way: in revision, we develop not only the skill but the courage to grapple with the questions we’re asking of ourselves and our characters.

In the other manuscript I was critiquing, the same symptom — endless chitchat on topics peripheral to the novel — had a different cause. The protagonist remembered nothing of her traumatic childhood and early adolescence, and she was so ashamed of her later adolescence and young womanhood that she wouldn’t talk about it even to her husband and closest friends. This gave her little to talk about besides chitchat.

Worse, because her repressive upbringing was key to the plot, it made her a sitting duck for the villain, who wasn’t hampered by amnesia or reticence.

Survivors of violent and traumatic events often repress memories of those events, but though it’s possible that someone might have no memories of her first 15 years, it’s certainly not inevitable. Most important, it wasn’t an interesting choice for this particular character in this particular novel. Interesting choices open up possibilities. This particular choice closed them off.

I suggested that this writer give her protagonist increased access to her own past and the willingness to share some of the grim details with those she trusts. At the very least, it will give the protagonist something to talk about, and greatly cut down on the chitchat.


4 thoughts on “When Chitchat Takes the Wheel

  1. I zoned in on your comment about the willingness to share.
    I am working on something in third person – a nurse with a serious lack of awareness about her need to be right all the time. It shows up in her dialogue often. Here’s my question: If I don’t have any internal narrative of her realizing this until more than halfway through the story , will it make the reader dislike her?


    • This sounds like an interesting challenge! Is the nurse a point-of-view (POV) character? It’s possible that some readers might dislike or get exasperated with her, especially if she seems stuck in unawareness mode for an extended period. As a reader myself, though, I’ll often bear with frustrating characters if I understand enough of how they came to be that way and/or can see them from the POV of those around them. Think about how you deal with friends, co-workers, or relatives whom you basically like but who have some flaw or blind spot that really annoys you. Maybe you grumble to your mutual friends or even flare up at the person him/herself, but mostly the good outweighs the bad so you put up with it. See if you can give your character enough context to make her more sympathetic.

      There’s no way to predict how readers in general will respond to a particular character — so much depends on what each reader brings to the story — but when the story’s ready to share with others, your second readers should be able to give you some feedback on how this character is coming across.


  2. Great post, Susanna and great links too.
    Dialogues matter so much when we write or read. In real life, like you say, we also avoid truth or whatever really matters with banal chitchat. It hurts real conversation but we might have more time. For a novel, we only have limited time to read and as writers we’ve got to make sure to capture readers’ interest. It’s a challenge as we want to avoid boring conversations but thrive to write them as authentically as possible.
    Ideally each character has also her or his own way to talk, not only in terms of vocabulary choice but also in style. In the same way some people are blunt and some hesitant, our fictional characters obey these intricate human manners.
    When it’s well done we know it, whether as readers or writers. A good dialogue sounds right.
    Easier to say than to do.
    Thanks again.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.