Today we’re going to look at editing dialogue. I’m making the assumption that you already know how to write dialogue, have written a fair amount of it, and now need to edit it.
Let’s first look at some common mistakes people make while writing dialogue:
- Assuming that every character is going to speak in the same way. We’ve all done it. Monotonous dialogue happens when you write it as though it is still the narrator speaking. If you can remove the dialogue tags and it sounds like a single person having a conversation with himself, you’ll need to edit this.
- Using dialogue tags instead of the dialogue itself to express the character’s emotions. Telling readers that a character is angry is far less effective than allowing them a few expletives in their dialogue.
- Talking heads. There are instances where reading dialogue is like watching a tennis match. You bounce back and forth between the characters talking, but at some point they lose who they are and become a pair of talking heads.
- No dialogue at all. Zip. Nada. Zilch. Unless it’s a flash fiction story or some scary experimental novel where no one talks, you ideally should have dialogue. It breaks up the big blocks of text and brings your characters to life.
There are plenty of others, but today I want to deal with how to edit for these particular mistakes.
- Define your characters. Know how they speak, why they speak that way and then change the dialogue to reflect their personalities. A teenager won’t use the same words as their grandparents for example. Their dialogue should reflect their age and culture. Be careful that you don’t overdo it though – one or two “dudes” in a sentence is more effective than incomprehensible abbreviations and acronyms.
- If you have a lot of dialogue tags, try to replace them with actions/dialogue that expresses the emotion. For example:
“I’m so mad right now.” She said to him.
“Screw you!” she balled her hands into fists, resisting the urge to punch the smirk off his face.
Bear in mind that the above example needs to reflect the personality of the characters as defined in point 1. It doesn’t help to have a character described as timid and placid if she’s running around getting violent with other characters.
- I’ve written short stories completely in dialogue. Some of them have been extremely effective. Others have been complete flops. A novel that has pages of dialogue without tags or exposition, needs to be edited. If you can delete dialogue without losing the story, you don’t need it and could probably replace it with exposition.
- This mistake most commonly occurs because people are scared of dialogue and is the reverse of point 3. It’s a tricky thing for a lot of writers, but is an essential skill to cultivate. When you have endless exposition, check whether some of it involves dialogue without actual dialogue. In other words you’re looking for something like this:
John told Mary that he’d had a really long day at work and didn’t really want to go to dinner with their friends Jenny and Chris. Mary sighed and thought to herself that it was always going to be this way. He would never want to do anything with her friends.
This can be changed to dialogue very easily:
“Work was exhausting.” John put his briefcase down and leaned over to kiss Mary where she sat at the table. “Janice made a complete mess of the accounts and I spent all day trying to fix it.”
“I don’t know why you don’t just fire her. She’s always making mistakes which you have to fix.”
“I feel bad. She’s going through a hard time with her divorce.”
“I guess.” Mary hesitated. “You haven’t forgotten about our dinner with Jenny and Chris?”
“Is that tonight?” he sighed. “I suppose it’s too late to cancel? You can go by yourself, can’t you? They really only want to see you anyway.”
“That’s not true. They want to see both of us.” She looked at his tired face and felt a pang of sympathy. “I guess I can go alone, if you want to get an early night.”
“You’re the best. I’m gonna go shower.” He left the room, and Mary picked up her phone to let Jenny know they’d be a party of three. Again.
Remember when you’re writing dialogue, you’re giving your characters an opportunity to express their feelings about the story you’re telling. Have fun with it – after all, you speak to people every day. Why shouldn’t your characters?
How do you feel about dialogue? Do you enjoy writing it, or is it a nightmare exercise? Do you find editing it easier than the initial writing process?