Thursday, August 5, 2010

ILesson: Get ride of the Nice Nice

This advice comes from my friend Candace, though I think she may have heard it somewhere else. When writers pass things on, it’s usually our interpretation of something someone else has said that clicked with us. So we steal it and pass it on to you.

So, the nice nice, as Candy tells it, is the conversational things that happen in civilized dialogue. So a conversation between character could go like this:

“Hi,” Jim said.

“Hey,” said John. “How was your flight?”

“Smooth, but the in flight movie sucked.”

Jim grimaced. “I hate it when that happens.”

The two men walked through the restaurant and then sat down and a waitress came over. She put down two cocktail napkins, then straightened and took out her pad and pen and then she looked at Jim and said, “What will you have?”

Jim looked over at the bar and read the signs on the wall to get an idea what they had on tap. “I’ll have a beer.”

She wrote it down and looked at John. “How about you?”

John read over the menu and said, “I just want a Coke.”

She wrote their orders down. “Thanks. I’ll have those right out.” Then she turned and walked off and after she was gone Jim turned to John and said, “I hear you’re under indictment for murder.”



Without my telling you, you can probably pick out the nice nice in the above example. It’s the things that are very “real” because it’s what real people do. However, dialogue in books isn’t meant to be exactly real but only to FEEL real. You want to mimic the way people talk, and maybe the rhythms of conversation, but you don’t want a literal transcription.

There’s a lot of nice nice in the action in this example. Again, you want to give the feel of the scene, not a blow by blow transcription.

You want to get to what’s important as quickly as possible. How quickly that is depends on your style, the pace of the scene, where it is in the book, and what you’re trying to accomplish.

If you’re trying to keep the pace of the book up, you could pare it all the way down to this:

Jim greeted John when he went into the restaurant, as if they were just two guys meeting for lunch. He kept up the fa├žade until the waitress had seated them and taken their order, then leaned across the table and said under the clatter and chatter of the lunchtime crowd, “What’s this I hear about you being indicted for murder?”

Nothing wrong with that; if the purpose of this scene is to get to their conversation, get to their conversation. The ambiance of the restaurant may not be important, but it’s also easy to slide in with a carefully chosen word or two.

Sometimes you need a certain amount of nice nice to get you in and out of a conversation. And you need stage business to set the scene and avoid sounded like you have talking heads. But in that case, it’s not just nice nice, it’s establishing scene or character or tension.

Jim let is eyes adjust to the dim light in the restaurant, and wished they’d met somewhere with a better line of sight. He found John, and felt out his state of mind with a neutral, “Hi. How was your flight?”


“Smooth,” said John, glancing at the hostess as she stepped into earshot. “But the in flight movie sucked.”

It’s all a matter of balance. Everything in the scene should serve the story in some way. Pare it down until nothing is in there just to be nice. Make it work for you.

2 comments:

  1. Great points. And yeah, I think this is also a proportion issue. Too often, I've read whole scenes that were all "nice, nice" and didn't belong in the book in the first place. Unless something serves a purpose--reveals backstory, builds characterization, or advances the plot--it's just not necessary.

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  2. This is exactly what I needed to read today. I have been struggling with my current WIP to find a balance between what would be said in real life and what makes for good reading. Thank you for the useful examples!

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