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.