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Revising and Editing Dialogue: 5 Quick Tips

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

I love dialogue. Writing dialogue is perhaps my favorite part of the process, and even as many editors have disfavored stories featuring mere human speech in favor of elevating a parade of would-be Prousts, I will stand by characters talking as the axis of all storytelling. I have no issue with inner monologue - Nerd World has plenty of that - but at some point, a reader expects to hear the protagonist communicate with someone.

Properly crafting dialogue is also one of the hardest parts of the process, and you're not likely to nail it in the first draft. Revising dialogue can range from simple edits for grammar and clarity to deep-down, line by line rebuilding. One could spend a whole series going over dialogue development, but here's a brief list of things to consider:

1. Proper tagging

If nothing else, dialogue needs to be clear. Particularly with long conversations, it is critical that the reader always know the identity of the speaker. Look for lines missing tags, ambiguous tags (i.e. more than one character mentioned), and anything else that might lead a reader astray. In dialogue with only two characters, it is acceptable to skip tags for brief periods, but look out for long passages or anything else that might muddy things.

As long as you're looking at tags, keep an eye out for bad tagging habits. Too many "creative" tags can distract the reader and make dialogue look unduly comical. Consider using action tags rather than pillaging the thesaurus for new ideas.

2. Banal sentences

Dialogue in fiction should never be too realistic. Conversations in real life are overwhelmingly dominated by small talk, filler speech and other petty meanderings. Dialogue fiction needs to be a lot leaner and more dramatic. Anything that would be boring to overhear at a party can be safely cut out.

This is a pretty common piece of dialogue writing advice, but it's not a terribly common mistake in my experience. Most people have a good sense for when dialogue is boring, and you tend to see this overly banal writing mainly in writing that features too many characters. Speaking of which...

3. Distinct voices

Developing character voices is hard, and fixing it after the fact is an absolute nightmare - but sometimes it must be done. Even with proper tagging, a scene in which all of the characters have the same voice can be hard to follow, and it gets worse when it's a full house. If you're going to insist on cramming six or more characters into a single dialogue, then they'd better stand out.

If you're worried about voice, you might want to do a little editing as you go. Review your work every few chapters to see if your characters have distinct voices - this way, you can fix a problem when it's still small and you won't have to gut the whole work later.

4. Long speeches

I love a good villain speech, but they're usually not that good, and they're often too long. I have much less love for hero speeches, but they're common in certain literary subcultures. Look, I know that there are niche writers who get away with having their characters talk (and talk, and talk, and...) for many pages, but it's usually just a damn good way to lose a reader.

So what constitutes "too long?" There's no hard and fast rule, but there are some best practices. A monologue that runs the length of a page is likely too much. Expository speeches (the kind used to summarize/explain the plot) are sometimes a necessary evil, but avoid plot dumps when you can and keep them trim when you can't. Don't put speeches early in the book where they might scare off a reader. Oh, and if you're going to have a character serve as a mouthpiece for your political and/or religious views, well...I can't stop you, but tread lightly.

5. Adding dialogue

Guides on dialogue primarily focusing on cutting, but what if you need to expand your dialogue? What if you want to add foreshadowing, or need to give a character some more personality, or just have a lot of terse conversations? Adding dialogue is dicey business, and if you can't do it naturally then you probably shouldn't do it at all.

As with point 3, this might be smoother if you edit as you go. If you are trying to insert new dialogue into a complete manuscript, be very careful that you don't repeat yourself or trip over your own lines. This happens to me a lot - I add a clever line, only to find the same line fifteen pages later. Add the absolute minimum, and make sure that it fits naturally with the original dialogue - if it feels like an addition, either remove it or mark it for a future editing pass.

One final thing - never add dialogue just to make the manuscript longer. That runs contrary to everything above.

All that said...

This is the kind of advice you'll see in just about any article on writing dialogue. It's helpful, but if you stick too closely to these kinds of guides you might miss your mark. There really aren't any hard and fast rules for crafting good dialogue - like giving a good speech or making a persuasive argument, our efforts to rationalize the process can really only skim the surface.

When reviewing a long passage of dialogue, run the lines through your head. Imagine them being spoken aloud by actors representing these characters, with accompanying gestures and expressions. Does it sound right? If not, then you need to punch it up. That's the overarching rule - dialogue should be compelling above all else. What that means is going to depend on a variety of factors, including some that can't easily be pinned down.

Bottom line: Use the above rules as best practices, but never forget your own instincts.

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