If you’ve ever written dialogue worthy of an episode of Days of Our Lives, this post is for you: my personal dialogue editing checklist, compiled from 3 years’ of searching the best writing blogs around and then torturing my poor characters with it. Enjoy!
The Over-do-er’s Editing Checklist: Dialogue
1. Comb as many ‘ly’ words as possible out of your dialogue (she said urgently) – nothing looks more deliberate and less confident than a writer who can’t bear just to use ‘she said’.
2. If you’re dialogue feels forced, try experimenting with what isn’t said, or what is said completely out of character. For example a hard-hitting question could be answered with a sigh or a hesitation. Or if your goody-too-shoes finally snaps and swears her head off, think what that’ll do to the tension and character progression.
3. Use dialogue to foreshadow tension and hook your readers, like in this awesome first line from Jim Butcher’s ‘Changes’… I answered the phone, and Susan Rodriguez said, “They’ve taken our daughter.”
4. Remove anything unnecessary to understanding who’s speaking (unless of course it serves another purpose, as above)..
5. Watch out for big chunks of text without dialogue or any white space, as your readers may skip to the next break. If your character is alone for the scene, a quick thought might be enough to give the eyes a break. Same goes for a character speaking for a page and a half. Break it up; rants are for blogs, not books.
6. Remember people can’t snort/laugh/grimace/enthuse/hiss/breathe/smile/moan/growl/gasp words. If you need dialogue tags just to show these emotions, then you’re dialogue clearly isn’t making its point.
7. Watch out for overuse of names in your dialogue (or anywhere, really).
8. Check that if a character says something that’s not followed by a dialogue verb of expression (he said), it ends in a full stop.
9. During long periods of dialogue, add action to maintain interest and ground the reader in the scene.
10. Check for overuse of it/s, that/s, had, because and was, as they may indicate that you’re explaining things for the sake of the reader.
11. Since dialogue can be used as an explanative tool, providing it’s done right, make sure every conversation either moves the plot forward, increases tension, builds character or deepens your portrayal of character relationships. If it doesn’t, it needs a-fixin’.
12. Found this useful? Don’t forget to check out my previous installments on Structure, Point Of View, Showing Instead of Telling, Characterization and Setting. Plus the last, most fiddly list of all the best ways to find misplaced apostrophes, extra spaces, there/they’re confusions and so on, is coming soon!