In the real world, people frequently use small talk as a courtesy to others or to fill moments of awkward silence. We’ve all done it before – “How’s the weather there?” … “How are the kids?” … “How’s work going?” Most of the time, we really don’t expect more than a trivial answer; we’re just trying to be kind.
There’s little room in a novel or a short story for small talk, though. Small talk doesn’t move the story forward, as it rarely ever shows a character attempting to achieve a goal. Because of that, small talk makes for mind-numbingly dull writing.
Consider the following dialogue:
“Hi Mary, how are you doing?”
“Just fine, thank you. And you?”
“Same old same old. How are the kids?”
“Doing great. Kaitlyn is playing T-ball this summer.”
“Oh fun! Bet that keeps you busy.”
“Yep. And how’s Timmy?”
“Still playing soccer.”
“Well, I best be going. Nice seeing you again.”
“Nice seeing you too. Bye!”
Ugh. Sure, the dialogue sounds realistic, but your story isn’t about copying life as we live it but about helping the reader either understand or escape life in an entertaining way.
Incorporating small talk into your story
Small talk can appear in a story, of course, but it ought to be for a good reason. For example, it could be used to indicate a character’s nervousness or their shallowness.
Keep these exchanges brief, however – and when doing so opt to show these personality traits in a character.
For example, look for the small talk in this passage involving two teenagers on the beach:
His face brightened when he saw me. I’m sure mine did too.
“Hey Laura,” he said. “Your bikini looks great.”
Damn right it did. The new two-piece nicely showed my trim waist, and the halter top left just enough to the imagination.
And then my mind froze up. I shifted my feet in the sand. “How’s your summer going?”
He shrugged. An awkward silence filled the space between us.
“Hey, wanna get a shaved ice?” he said.
Laura uses small talk – “How’s your summer going?” – so the author can indicate her nervousness. More importantly, the author shows her nervousness with And then my mind froze up. I shifted my feet in the sand. The small talk dialogue is brief rather than carried on for several sentences. The reader understands the boy also is nervous when he shrugs and says nothing for a long moment.
Greetings and goodbyes
Like small talk, courtesies such as “Hello” and “Goodbye” almost always are unnecessary in fiction.
With greetings, cut right to the action. In the previous passage, the boy didn’t say “Hey Laura! How are you?” followed with Laura saying, “Oh hi Jason. Great to see you again!” Instead we jump right into the action with the boy complimenting her bikini, indicating he’s attracted to her.
A good way to handle greetings is to show how a character enters the scene. This reveals the characters’ intent. For example, the teen beach passage might have started with Jason ran up to me. This shows he’s excited to see her.
Rather than say “Bye!” at the end of a passage of dialogue, instead end on a more dramatic note that shows the possibility of where the plot might be going or of some potential tension between the characters. That keeps the story moving forward much more effectively than a “Goodbye.”
This small talk cliché consists of detailing all the trivial steps and dialogue that goes into answering a phone call. For example:
John’s cell phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket, hit the phone icon. “John here.”
“Hi John, it’s Mary.”
“How are you, Mary?”
“Good.” There was a long pause.
“My car broke down again.”
John rolled his eyes.
There’s a lot of dull stuff in that passage that merely shows how John answered the phone and the courteous greetings that come with it. While the passage may be true to life, including those details isn’t necessary in a story. They leave the story with a null that serves no purpose – they don’t ramp up the tension, they don’t reveal a character’s motivations, and they don’t set the mood.
Instead, the passage could be trimmed to read:
John’s cell phone rang.
“My car broke down again.”
Mary. John rolled his eyes.
The short version dispenses with the blow-by-blow action and the pleasantries of answering the phone, keeping the story rolling.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.