Welcome to Day Twenty of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. Up until now, we’ve been adding and tweaking our stories, focusing more on getting the missing information in, and cutting the unnecessary information out. Odds are we’ve gotten some scenes a little messy, but the overall novel is working from a plot, character, and scene to scene standpoint. Now is the time to tighten things back up.
Dialogue makes up a sizable chunk of a novel, but it’s also a common area to find weak prose. We let our characters ramble on, give them unrealistic things to say, and even steal their unique voices from them.
Today, let’s take a closer look at our dialogue and make sure our story people sound as good as they look.
1. Examine the Dialogue
Stilted dialogue can stop a story cold or make it feel melodramatic and cheesy. Good dialogue captures the essence of real life conversations without the awkward pauses and interruptions that actually happen. Look over the dialogue in each scene and ask:
- Do the characters sound like real people?
- Does each character have his or her own voice and style of speaking?
- Do characters use language suitable to their status, age, or cultural situation? (for example, five year olds don't typically sound like college professors unless there's a reason)
- Is the dialog actual conversations or just two people stating information at one another for the readers' benefit?
- Are characters telling each other things they already know? (Odds are you caught all these on Day Eighteen, but keep an eye out for subtle ones you may have missed)
- Are there empty dialogue phrases slowing the pacing down? (pointless small talk)
2. Eliminate Empty Dialogue
In real life conversations, people use small talk and break up what they say into bites. For example: “Hi,” “Hey John,” “Did you see that new movie?” “The one with the robot?” “Yeah,” “Not yet, you?” In a novel, this will slow the pace down and make readers impatient to get back to the story (and use a lot of unnecessary words). “Realistic” dialogue is condensed to keep things moving: “Hey John. Did you see the new movie with the robot?” “Not yet, you?”
Look through your dialogue for any lines that can be condensed, combined, or cut. The beginning of a conversation is a common place to find empty dialogue, as characters are getting up to speed to have the real talk.
3. Vary Too-Similar Character Voices
Ideally, characters should sound as different as they look, but it’s not uncommon to have our secondary characters all have basically the same voice. We could change who says a line of dialogue and not have to change the actual dialogue itself. For example: “Maybe this is a bad idea,” Bland Character said.
Examine your characters (especially the ones who talk a lot) and ask: If you took out the dialogue tags, could readers tell who was speaking by voice alone? If not, look for ways to give that character a unique voice and speaking style. For example: “Yo, bad idea, dude,” or “This is cray-cray,” or “In the classroom of bad ideas, that sucker gets a gold star.”
(Here's more on creating character voices)
4. Revise “Share Everything” Conversations
In our effort to keep our stories moving, we sometimes forget that not every character will be forthcoming about every bit of information they know. We'll have characters who always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Real people lie, they fudge, they withhold information, they steer conversations back to what they’re interested in (usually themselves), and they don’t offer information that will make them look bad.
Review your character’s conversations and revise anything that feels a little too helpful or forthcoming. If you did a character frontstory sheet on Day Two, check that character’s goals and consider what she might be hiding or trying to achieve in the scene or conversation. Not only will you make the conversations more interesting, but you’ll likely raise the tension and conflict as well.
(Here's more on why characters should help (or not help) your protagonist)
5. Revise Awkward Summarized Dialogue
Dialogue is about the spoken word, but once in a while we gloss over it and summarize a conversation when we don’t need to. It’s another form of telling, and often readers want to see these conversations unfold in “real time” in the novel. For example: I walked into the kitchen and asked Mom about the gun I’d found in her suitcase. She dodged the question and asked me what I wanted on my eggs instead.
This is a missed opportunity to create tension and probably a very cool moment in the book. What would Mom say? How would she dodge the question? What was her body language like?
Look for any summarized dialogue and ask if it would be stronger for the scene to see that dialogue dramatized.
6. Revise Awkward or Confusing Dialogue Tags
Bad dialogue tags can range from cumbersome to ridiculous, creating missed opportunities to flesh out a scene. Here are some common areas to check for trouble:
He said adverbidly: In most cases, an adverb in a dialog tag is a missed opportunity to show, not tell. If you didn’t already do this during the show don’t tell session, check your tags and make sure any adverbs used are there for good reasons, and there isn't a better way to dramatize the adverb instead.
Avoiding “said”: Said is a perfectly good word. It's invisible to readers, so they gloss right over it. Avoiding it, or using solely action dialogue tags, can give the prose a clunky, list-like feel since it's technically one short sentence after another.
Internalization overload: Internalization is a great way to tag dialogue without using said or stage direction, but be wary of large chunks of internal thought that create awkwardly long pauses between dialogue. If there are nine lines of thoughts between “I did,” and “Did you?”, odds are readers will have forgotten what the character was asking about.
Characters as mind readers: Be wary of characters who think something, and the other characters in the scene react as if those thoughts were actually spoken.
Dialog tag placement: Where we place our dialogue tags affects how readers hear the dialogue. Tagging every line at the end feels repetitious and list like. Listen to how the words flow and look for the right spot to add a pause, since a tag often works like a comma to slow things down. Ask yourself if you can you get more dramatic punch if the tag is in a different place. This is especially true for zingers or those "dum-dum-DUM!" moments.
(Here's more on dialogue tags)
7. Flesh Out Talking Head Conversations
Sometimes a conversation feels like two heads talking with no sense of background or stage direction. Any problems here were likely fixed during the description and stage direction sessions, but go ahead and flesh out anything that was missed, or anything added since then.
By the end of today’s session, we should have tight dialogue with unique voices for our characters. Next, we’ll head inside those heads and focus on what those characters are thinking.
Tomorrow: Streamline the Internalization
New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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