Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Self-Editing Checklist: Dialogue

Grab any fiction book off the shelves, and you'll see characters talking (Well, not literally. If you do, you might want to seek help). Sometimes they talk more than we want them to, sometimes less.

Dialogue is a vital part of every manuscript, and it deserves its own spot on my self-editing checklist -- Point Number 10, to be exact. (For Points 1-9, click here.)

When analyzing your dialogue, ask yourself the following questions.

1) Do I have the right amount of dialogue on each page? Or you could ask it this way: Do I have several pages with no dialogue? If so, that's a good indication that you need to have your characters interact with each other more. In fact, I like to try and have at least one dialogue run per scene if possible. A dialogue run is a phrase I learned from Margie Lawson (Have I mentioned yet that she's brilliant?). It describes a section of dialogue that is mostly unhindered by dialogue tags or physical actions. Interspersed dialogue runs keep the pace moving.

2) Does the dialogue fit each character? Remember how we talked in our characterization post about how each character should have unique personality traits, etc.? That same uniqueness should come out in how they speak, how they put their words together.

3) Does my dialogue move the story forward? Mundane, everyday conversations aren't exciting in fiction. If you have this type of dialogue, there'd better be underlying tension through subtext or by contrasting it against "the elephant in the room", so to speak.

4) Do my dialogue descriptions enhance or distract? By descriptions, this can include "he said" or it can include physical actions that precede or follow the dialogue. Finding just the right balance is key. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers has really good advice on this topic, as does The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

5) Does my dialogue sound natural? To really be sure on this, you'll want to read it aloud. We want our characters to sound like actual people rather than robots (unless you're writing a sci-fi story that involves robots taking over the planet).

Your homework for the next two weeks, should you choose to accept it: Work through these questions and analyze your dialogue. Check out the resources and links I've provided. And for some general dialogue-improving exercises, check out this excellent post.

So how about you? Do you find yourself erring on the side of too much dialogue or not enough? How do you ensure your characters all sound unique?

(If you have an extra minute, feel free to drop by my personal blog today. I'm joining the ACFW Conference blog tour with a goofy post titled "Top 5 Things to Avoid Telling Editors and Agents at Conferences".)

*Talking photo by photostock /
**Elephant photo by Michelle Meiklejohn /


Wendy Paine Miller said...

This is funny b/c my first three novels I was on the low end for dialogue and then I pumped up the fourth novel so much with dialogue it bloated with it.

Great thoughts here today, Sarah.
~ Wendy

Julia M. Reffner said...

Hmmm...dialogue runs in each scene. This is something I could definitely work on. Its been pounded into me about not using tags, but I think I overdo the physical actions part now and could benefit from adding "runs."
Great continuation to a helpful series, Sarah.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Great post, Sarah. I appreciate the practical points you bring forth about dialogue. This is a weak area for me. I plan to use your points (and study the links!) to evaluate my wip and use them in mycoming chapters.
I, too, like the idea of one dialogue run each scene. It's a good, easy thing to keep in mind! Thanks!

Unknown said...

Excellent points. There are so many different levels to editing dialogue. You want it to tell the reader things as well as each charter sounding different and authentic to who they are, and what their motives are in the story.

Joanne Sher said...

LOVE dialogue - AND Margie Lawson. I definitely need this help for editing dialogue. Thanks.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wendy - A bloated novel...Now that's giving a funny mental image. :)

Julia - I get a little over-eager with physical actions too sometimes. That's the topic for my next post. :)

Jeanne - So glad this was helpful! And yes, definitely study those links...There's good stuff hanging around the World Wide Web. :)

D.U. - You summarized the goal of dialogue quite nicely. Thanks for taking a break from Wimbledon to say hi! (watching Federer battle it out w/ Tsonga as I type) :)

Joanne - Dialogue + Margie Lawson = Double Love! :)

Beth K. Vogt said...

My first draft is usually heavy-laden with dialogue. One of my writing buddies said I even brainstorm a scene in dialogue. So, after I write the first draft, I have to go back and pare back the talking and add the other stuff: storyworld and actions.
Great post!

Faith said...

Great post, I just realized that I need to work a bit on dialogue today! Thanks.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Beth - I tend to be the opposite. I put a little dialogue in there, but I tend to narrate it at first to get the general scene direction figured out. :)

Faye - Happy dialogue writing! :)

Marji Laine - Faith Driven Fiction said...

Oh, this is going to be painful, but thanks for the instruction!

Sarah Forgrave said...

LOL, Marji! Painful, but with great rewards! :)