Revisions — Dialogue

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During the comments discussion on my last Revisions post, we touched briefly on the fact that the rules of dialogue are completely different than the rules of prose.  This little statement means that revision strategies are also necessarily different.  Clear and concise will not apply, for example, to a character who is ambiguous and verbose.  Cutting down on prepositional phrases might make no sense if the speech pattern, dialect, or cultural background of a particular character requires such phrases.  So what’s a writer to do? Well, the keys to revising dialogue are the same keys used to writing dialogue in the first place — developing your ear and understanding the character who is speaking.

Since the words in between quotes are the literal reprinting of what was said exactly, rules like grammar and punctuation often go out the window.  It all depends on the type of character you are writing.  A character like Gollum would sound horrible if he had to speak formally — “Excuse me, dear Frodo, but I require the ring which you bear.  It is quite precious to me.”  Likewise, Paul Atreides would sound equally horrible if speaking in a guttural third-person — “Mmmmm, Paul wantses the spiiiiiice.”  Switch the two, however, and though Gollum’s grammar is horrendous and Paul’s a bit stiff, they fit their characters.

So, the first and most important aspect of revising dialogue is to think about the characters once again.  In fact, revising dialogue is a lot like creating a scene — think about the characters, what they want, how they plan to accomplish it, what stands in their way, etc.  Then look closely at the words they use.  Do the quotes fit with their goals?  Do the quotes fit with their characters?  Do the quotes fit the characters’ voices?

At its best, this is all the advice one needs.  Of course, none of us are ever the best, most perfect writers we can be.  So, here are some more practical basics to think about that will both clean up the flow of your dialogue as well as cut wasted words:

Tag lines — you’ve heard it before, now hear it again.  99.99999% of the time the only tag line you need is s/he said.  Anything else is wasted words.  Also, learn your pronoun rules so that you A) know when you even need to bother with tags at all, and B) don’t confuse your reader by mixing pronouns.

Utterances — Though a lot of real life speech is filled with um, well, so, y’see, y’know, etc., it does little for smooth flowing, effective dialogue — unless such utterances are a specific character trait (and even then, it should be used sparingly or else you risk annoying the reader).  For most characters, however, these things tend to slow the pacing.  Think of utterances like cayenne pepper — a little bit goes a long way.

The Point — as in, get to it!  This is another one of those situations where written dialogue does not mimic real speech.  In a real conversation, we may talk for several minutes before we get to anything of substance.  In a story, that’s a sure way to lose your audience.  Look at the best writers and almost all their dialogue enters and exits at the key parts of the conversation.  The rest of it is told (not shown).

Ex:  On the date, Bob and Jane talked for hours about their jobs, their pets, and their family.  Then Bob leaned in and said, “You ever kill a man?”

The first sentence tells about the unimportant gabbing they did.  The quote tells us that something interesting is about to be discussed and we don’t want to miss any of it.

Names — Most people know their name and don’t need to be reminded of it.  If you find your characters addressing each other by name over and over, you’ve found a place to do some cutting.

Pauses — This is one I worked hard to stop in my own writing.  A typical dramatic quote of mine from the past would read “I . . . won’t . . . let you . . . do that.”  I got in this habit, I think, from my theater days.  I could hear the actor in my head and wanted to recreate the speech pattern on the page.  The problem is this — it doesn’t work.  Readers tend to ignore all those ellipses and just read the sentence straight.  Those that do have the ear for the pauses suffer through every . . . single . . . pause . . . thus . . . slowing . . . down . . . the . . . story.  Nowadays, I write these things straight — “I won’t let you do that.”  I still use the ellipses for pauses, but only in rare instances and usually to show somebody out of breath, injured, incoherent, or such.

So, these are a few thoughts to get you started.  Unfortunately, the ability to write good dialogue is mostly developed over time.  You get an ear for it.  The better your ear, the easier it is to revise dialogue.  Hopefully, these little suggestions will help you on that journey.

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19 comments to Revisions — Dialogue

  • “This,” he said, “is a terrific post.” Really. Wonderful stuff. One of the things I do too much is have my characters use the names of those they address. Particularly my villains. I love the way it sounds, but I think I overdo it, particularly in early drafts. This is why revisions are so important. But that’s another post.

    Having an ear for dialogue is something that writers can develop through simple observation and, I hate to say it, eavesdropping. That said, Stuart is spot on: we want to be authentic in our writing, but not too authentic. Characters in a book need to be more directed in what they say and more articulate in how they say it.

  • Thank you, Stuart for the great advice and hints for dialogue. You’re right about the ellipses. When I read your post, I paused for a good second every time I saw them, and it was painful.

    In my dialogue, I think I overuse the construction David had in his first sentence for a slight pause. I also find it difficult to just end with a s/he said. I tend to add something like– ‘he said, and laughed’ or ‘he said, and took a sip of the Macallan.’

    Anyway, more excellent advice for me to follow while I revise. Thank you!

  • This is a great post. I’m with Alistair: I can’t seem to ever end with just s/he said. I find it incredibly boring to write that way, but I’m afraid I’m in danger of boring the reader with too many extra details. I can already tell I’m going to have some major editing to do when I finally get to that point.

    And speaking of eavesdropping, I recently read another blog article on the subject that was really interesting. The post by Alan Rinzler suggested (as a writing exercise) that writers sit in a crowded place and write down what people are saying verbatim to get a feel for real dialogue. I’m anxious to try this out…have any of you ever done anything similar? Did you find it helpful both for writing and revising dialogue?

  • Dialogue is one of the toughest things for me to get right. Thanks for sharing these great tips!

  • Beatriz

    Another fabulous post, Stuart. I loved the example you gave for The Point. It certainly drove the point home to me.

    Happy Friday!

  • Great points, Stuart, and well made. The ugly truth is that most people don’t go to fantasy and sci-fi for good dialogue. Too many authors in this genre (published and unpublished) don’t pay enough attention to having their characters sound like human beings. They hide behind the otherworldliness of their environment and character suffers as a result. Nothing damages an author’s credibility more. Nothing more clearly reinforces that prejudicial stereotype that fantasy/sci-fi authors (and readers) aren’t in touch with reality. There, I said it. Characters have to feel like people, and that hinges–to a very large extent–on how they talk.

  • Stuart, I needed this post back 15 years ago, (where were you then???) and will keep it bookmarked to share with other writers. *Excellent* advice!

    I totally overused ellipses in my earlier books. When they come back into print as backlist it gives me a chance to take out about 70% of them. And it makes me cringe to see the numbers. Why didn’t some editor, somewhere, tell me to *stop with dots, sweetie!*? Arrg.

    I love to eavesdrop. For a writer it seems as important as people watching. And a lot more fun. Not too long ago, Misty and I were having tea at Starbucks and we realized that someone was listening to us. Really hard! Wonder if she was a writer? (grins)

  • David — I find all authors have at least one bad dialogue habit. I almost wrote “crutch” but they really don’t help us as much as muck up the works. As long as you recognize what your habit is, then it’s just a matter of revisions.

    Alistair and Megan — The best thing I can suggest for getting over the s/he said fear is to pay attention to yourself the next time you’re reading something. You’ll most likely find that you don’t notice the s/he said words that much (in fact, you’re only noticing them because your paying extra attention). Also, if you find a particular s/he said bothersome, that may be your inner-ear telling you to just cut the tag altogether.

    Laura and Beatriz — Thanks. Always happy to help.

    AJ — Yes. Likewise, theater dialogue is different, too. I learned that the hard way in my early writing years. The dialogue I wrote would have played excellent on the stage but in prose, it just didn’t flow right (for similar reasons I encourage people to see a Shakespeare play first before reading it). The experience made me really take a closer look at the mechanics of dialogue in prose and sent me tumbling into the evil-joy-spiral that is the writer’s life.

  • Faith — 15 years ago I was drowning in my own sea of ellipses! :) It’s only now, after enough rejections, that I’ve figured this stuff out. Of course, 15 years from now I’ll be pounding my head against the stupidity of whatever I’m currently doing wrong in my writing. I don’t think it ever ends.

  • Stuart> great post! For me it wasn’t ellipses. No, it was exclaimation points!!!! All of my characters were really, really excited!!! Darn near hysterical!!! All the time!!! I’ve since killed most of my exclaimation points. No more than one a chapter, and fewer than that, actually. I think in good dialogue, people will hear the exclaimation points, even if they aren’t there.

  • kmcelhinny

    Wow. It’s been so long that I’ve come here that they logged me out!!

    Oops!

    Stuart, great advice. I often find myself writing dialog as though I was speaking. Revisions are always a must. Always. I too suffer from multiple ellipses because when I’m trying to think of something I put the … to keep my place. (Dunno why) just a bad habit I picked up. I find that I take out “um, so, yeah…etc.” during the second rewrite’s because it does tend to trip up the eyes. Unless it’s vital to the character of course. 😀

  • Pea — Absolutely!!!! You’ve got the right idea that the dialogue should speak for itself. Rarely do you really need exclamation points.

    Hinny — At least now, with computers, you can “Find & Replace” those ellipses out of there as well as the little utterances. That little function has helped all writers with cleaning up “crutches” during revisions. Of course, since it’s a computer function, use with caution.

  • Stuart said, Those that do have the ear for the pauses suffer through every . . . single . . . pause . . . thus . . . slowing . . . down . . . the . . . story.

    When I was a teenager, I went through a short (thank goodness) but intense fondness for romance novels. I read everything – the Harlequin formula novels, the bodice rippers, and of course, Barbara Cartland’s Regency romances. In which every single heroine spoke like…this…when faced with…the man of…her dreams. And since I was one of those who heard the pauses, I found myself wondering if all the young women of that era had asthma. 😀

  • Tom G

    Spock…why…must….he…mock me?

  • Misty — I find it fascinating just how many people respond to the ellipse issue in particular. I wonder if there was a recent decade in which ellipses were “in” and now they’re “out” in response to that.

    Tom — Truly worthy of the following: LOL :)

  • Alan Kellogg

    Misty,

    Consumption was popular in melodramas at one time, maybe this asthma is in honor of those days.

  • Alan Kellogg

    And since I just gotta, a sample for people to comment on.

    I entered the lab to find the professor seated before a bell jar. Inside that jar something was crawling about as the orc chowed down on a large sandwich.

    “Sergeant,” he said with a smile, “Come in. I got something from the Medical Examiners office. They found it in Mrs. Kleinstein’s abdomen. Take a look and tell me what you see.”

    I had a look at it.

    “That’s a worm.” I said.

    “Look again.”

    So I had a closer look.

    “That’s a finger.”

    The professor confirmed that saying, “They found it crawling around the victim’s guts. Apparently she bit it off and swallowed it, after being eviscerated.

    I suspect it’s a troll’s finger.”

    I took a deep breath and asked, “Are you sure?”

    The professor shrugged and said, “I could mention all the tests I did, but it all comes down to this.”

    “And that is?”

    “It was half that size when I got it.”

  • Great post, Stuart!

    My own writer training comes from journalism, where they drilled into our heads the maxim of “he said/she said”, and that’s what I use, though I’ll throw in the occasional synonym (almost always “replied”) for variety.

  • Nice bit of dialogue there, Alan!

    Very easy to follow.