7 tips on editing dialogue7 Useful Tips on Editing Dialogue

by Marg McAlister


Just what you needed: 7 handy tips to help you beef up your dialogue. If you're worried that your dialogue sounds bland, or that your characters all sound the same... or SOMETHING'S wrong but you don't know what! - then this might help you to get yourself out of a hole quickly.

  1. Take your scene of dialogue and strip out everything except the words in quotation marks - that is, the actual spoken words. Imagine that this is ALL your readers have to tell them about the character's emotions, moods, and concerns. Most people are suprised by how much they rely on the narrative surrounding the dialogue to do the work. Your task is to edit and polish just the words that your characters speak - and see how much more you can show the reader. (Note that I didn't say 'TELL' the reader. We don't want any info-dumping here!)

  2. And speaking of info-dumping - are you guilty? Look for passages where you are all-too-obviously explaining things for the benefit of the reader, rather than the people engaged in the conversation. Take some time to think about this. How else can you let the reader know this information? Can it be inserted more subtly somewhere else?

  3. Read it out loud. I almost didn't include this, because I say it so often that I tend to assume people know that this is one of the best ways to detect unnatural-sounding dialogue. However, I thought again... and put it in. It's even better to get someone else to read it to you. They'll stumble over passages of dialogue that are not smoothly written.

  4. Read screenplays. These are completely dialogue-based, with just a brief scene set-up here and there. You'll soon get a feel for smoothly-flowing dialogue. (Where can you get a script? Where else but on the Internet? Just Google "download screenplay script" and you'll have more resources than you know what to do with.) Read a scene from a screenplay, then read your scene of dialogue. What do you notice?

  5. Check the scene for conflict. This is the problem with many dull scenes of dialogue. You have to have some sort of tension or conflict for it to work. This doesn't mean that characters have to be hurling abuse at each other or throwing things... but there has to be a reason for the scene, and it will work better with some tension. If it doesn't have any... then consider how much you need the scene. (You can write a 'half-scene' if you need to just show a character moving from situation A to situation B. That is, just a paragraph or two... in which case you can get away with its being a bit bland.)

  6. Make sure that the reader will not be left in any doubt about who is speaking. BUT... at the same time, be careful that you don't overdo the speech tags (attribution - 'he said', 'Darlene insisted'.)

  7. Ensure that each character has a distinctive voice. If you haven't yet done the exercise recommended in Point #1 above, give it a try. It will really stand out if your characters have the same 'voice'. The way they express things should give clues to their personality and habits. If your characters DON'T sound different enough, then play around with the spoken-words-only version of your scene until they DO sound like individuals.

(c) Marg McAlister


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