Dialogue is not only a useful tool, it’s an important component of effective storytelling. The time that you invest in editing and polishing will pay generous dividends.
Dialogue lets you reveal character, advance the plot, establish the setting, and deliver a theme, all at the same time. Well-written dialogue is a fast and easy read. Make sure you fix these problems in your dialogue.
Beware of Wooden dialogue
It’s important to read dialogue aloud while editing it, because the words you put into your character’s mouths need to sound natural and spontaneous coming back out. At the same time, unlike real people who often stammer and repeat themselves when conversing, fictional characters are expected to “talk edited.” Avoid these mistakes that make the dialogue sound stiff and rehearsed.
First, avoid Radio talk. In old radio dramas, scriptwriters peppered the actors’ dialogue with narrative details to help the listeners picture each scene more clearly.
“Marshall, why are you have that gun pointed at me?”
Therefore, as you go through your manuscript, remove or revise speeches where a character is doubling as narrator.
Second, avoid unnecessary naming. Unless there is a good reason for doing so, including the name of the person being addressed can also make dialogue sound wooden.
“Way to go, Andrew.”
As you read through scenes of dialogue, be alert to excessive or unnecessary naming and trim it out.
Eliminate Insignificant dialogue
Real life conversations often begin with exchanges such as: “How have you been? Nice weather we’re having.” We use small talk as a way to dispel initial discomfort, or to ‘sound out’ the other person before raising more sensitive or important topics.
As you edit your manuscript, consider whether there is any true dramatic purpose for your characters to engage in small talk (to betray nervousness, for example). If the line is insignificant, remove it and let the speakers get right to the point.
Also, look for speeches that recap things already known to every character as well as the reader in the scene. If the speaker has nothing new to say (or ask, or reveal) about the past event being recalled, then the reference as it stands is insignificant to the story. Either put it to work moving things forward or delete it.
Delete Repetitive dialogue
Speeches of dialogue need to be edited as rigorously as any other part of a story, especially when it comes to ‘trimming the fat’ by getting rid of unnecessary repetition. Read each speech aloud; repeated words and idea echoes will pop out at you. For example: “He was elected unanimously. Everybody voted for him.” (The second sentence is an echo and can be deleted.)
Sometimes entire scenes are repeated in dialogue, by a character who has experienced an event in an earlier part of the story and proceeds to describe it in detail to another character later on. If the scene has already been shown to the reader and this revisiting of it reveals nothing new about either the speaker or the listener, then the narrator can sum it up in a sentence: “He told Rachel what had happened at the party.”
Dress-up Naked dialogue
In every real-life conversation, there is an underlying subtext communicated by unspoken clues. Each speaker’s state of mind and trustworthiness are revealed by such things as the speaker’s posture, physical actions, facial expressions, and tone of voice. In order to bring a written scene of dialogue to life, you need to envision and communicate a subtext for it that the reader can picture in his or her mind.
While some spoken lines contain their own subtext, others do not. So, as you edit your manuscript, look for ‘naked’ speeches in need of one or more:
Descriptive tags (she said, he insisted, they chorused), to help the reader keep track of who is talking and reveal a character’s manner of speaking when the words alone don’t imply it. (“I’m not going in there,” Jerry muttered.)
A speaker’s actions, when they contradict or reinforce the spoken words, or when they help the reader to picture the scene more easily.
A speaker’s thoughts, when the speaker is the point of view character and the information helps to deepen the reader’s understanding of the character or the scene. (This wasn’t an ice cream parlor – it was a dental office! “I’m not going in there,” Jerry muttered.)
Undressing Overdressed Dialogue
Tags or speaking verbs describe a character’s voice, and because they tend to chop up a scene of dialogue, they should be used sparingly, primarily when there is likely to be confusion about which speaker is saying what, or how the words sound coming out. When editing your manuscript, look for tags that can be removed without diminishing the effectiveness of the scene. Look also for tags that describe actions rather than voices. Compare the following examples:
“But why do I feel so miserable?” she scowled unhappily.
Jenny scowled. “But why do I feel so miserable?” she demanded.
Three Rules for Editing Dialogue Punctuation
Although we will be discussing other aspects of punctuation later in the series, we’ll deal with dialogue punctuation here. There is a right and a wrong way to punctuate dialogue. Here are three important things to remember about dialogue punctuation.
1. Insert double quote marks around the beginning and ending of the spoken portions within your story.
“That television program is the worst I have seen in years.”
There are double quote marks at the beginning of this dialogue and at the end of this dialogue. If your font has straight quote marks, be sure to keep them consistent. Nothing like inconsistency on something so small as quotation marks that sadly ruin a great reading experience!
2. Place the comma on the inside of the quote mark, before the dialogue tag. This error is very common in manuscripts.
“She’s a good time girl, all right,” Dad said and looked up from his daughter’s grade card.
3. Watch for inconsistent structure in dialogue. You might have beautiful dialogue, but the structure is messed up. When you have action beats and dialogue beats around a segment of dialogue, it can be tricky to know how to organize it.
“I think you’re crazy.” Susan shook her head. “You’ll never get away with that.”
But what if you want to include a dialogue tag instead of an action beat? Try this:
Maddie wasn’t sure how long she had been unconscious, but Deke’s tone made it sound as though it had been a long time. “How long was I out?” she called.
The question mark goes inside the quote mark, followed by a lowercased pronoun and a comma after the dialogue tag and the exposition of how the character’s voice sounded. Please do not capitalize the pronoun after the character speaks. You want to keep good form.
Get Your Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist
If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.