by Kris Maze
Editing a manuscript can be a daunting task, but it becomes easier when using time-tested dialogue suggestions. While I tip-toed through my first chapters, I discovered how to use this handy writers’ multipurpose tool. Slogging through stalled and unproductive scenes, the simple act of allowing my characters to speak had many purposes, and solved my writerly problems.
With proper use of dialog, I could:
- Keep an active plot moving during slower scenes
- Break up sticky sentences
- Tackle info-dumps
- Intensify the tension
- Incite reader curiosity
Dialogue is an essential part of a well-crafted story, but what does an author include and avoid?
Adding dialogue can move the plot forward and develop the characters, but too many words can bog down your tale. By sprinkling in dialogue, I improved the readability of my manuscript and built confidence in the work I will send to beta readers and editors.
But what are the basic rules to follow? Here are a few resources for editing this important part of fiction.
Keep the Plot Moving
Sprinkling in dialogue is a spark plug to keeping a reader engaged. The long chunks of backstory and scene description can use the vehicle of dialogue to take the reader along on your literary ride.
Consider whether your story with description (in bold) of a bucolic countryside, complete with rolling hills and picturesque farmsteads, could be enhanced by the characters bringing these details to the reader instead:
“We’ve been driving for like, forever!” Sam put her foot against the side window as she glanced at fields of spotted cows. “When are going to get there?”
“You’re being dramatic, Sammie. Someday you’ll appreciate going to Grammie’s farm.” Her dad feathered the brakes when he spotted a deer and its fawn grazing too near the road’s graveled shoulder. “She’s not getting any younger.”
“Me neither.” Sam slurped the dregs of a Biggie Drink purchased at the last tiny town’s gas station. “I had plans.”
“I know it’s hard on you, but it’s my weekend with you and I didn’t have to work.” The pickup crossed a one-lane wooden bridge over a babbling brook, bouncing them around the cab. “I’m sorry you’re missing the big gig of your friend’s band. I’m going to make it up to you.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
He dialed the radio to one of two available stations. “See? I’ll let you choose. Classic rock or country.”
“No, thanks. Listen to what you want, I brought my own.” Sam placed the headphones over her ears and opened her sketchbook. She started to replicate a circled design painted on a faded red barn.
Break up Info-Dumps
For the clunky parts in my chapters, I focused on the long paragraphs that would slow down the reader. These sections of backstory could be delivered better through the voices of my characters.
In the example above, we not only see that we are driving on a country road to Grammie’s house, but we get information about Sam and her dad, too.
We can tell that Dad has part-time custody, and he tries to use their time together in meaningful ways. Sam is a teen and acts with typical indignant behavior, as kids do when they lack control over where they are going and with whom. She likes a certain band and is being forced to skip their concert to visit her relatives. Dad has a sense of humor and jokes about the radio station, which Sam shuts out with her headphones and snarky comments.
We set the stage for a relationship reconciliation for Dad, and a potential coming of age experience for Sam. All through dialogue.
Show Don’t Tell
The writer’s mantra we all love to hate when we see segments of lengthy exposition all over our work. (Just me? Okay. We all start somewhere!)
I found that my areas without conversation were filled with showing the reader what was happening instead of letting the characters' conversation weave the drama.
Showing the reader how the characters feel and revealing their motivations is the most effective use for dialogue. Consider it a shovel when unearthing a tough, rocky passage in your work.
In the example above, we see how the father is excited about spending time with his daughter and is exercising patience despite her angst. Sam is angry for potentially many reasons: not seeing her friend’s band, having to spend the weekend on a boring farm, her drink is empty, her music choices are limited, and her parents are divorced.
Dialogue can roll down the window and let the reader peek into the world you are creating.
Tags? We don’t need no stinking tags!
I’m pretty sure I ripped that one off from a cheesy comedy, but editors often recommend that writers use their tags sparingly, or *gasp* not at all.
Tags are used to help the reader understand who is speaking, but there are other ways to show this and draw a reader into your story. Try to eliminate the following tempting tags problems common to many writers.
- He said. She said. - According to online editing software, ProWritingAid, published authors use “said” as a dialog tag 60%, with “asked” at a distant second at 10%. These authors use nonstandard dialogue tags only occasionally. For these reasons, they recommend not using tags other than “said” and “asked” over 20% of the time.
- Adverbs with Dialogue tags - Writers may want to describe how a character says something, but it distracts the reader and takes away from the words they say. Try not to upstage your characters. Using actions instead allows readers to make inferences and imagine more fully developed characters. ProWritingAid suggests that authors keep adverbs to under 12% of their total in one work.
- Use the right words -If you still want to use unique dialog tags and you have over 12%, consider taking a hard look at the content of your conversation. Can you strengthen the wording to convey the emotion instead?
- No laughing matter - According to Writer’s Digest, some common dialog tags shouldn’t be used because they don’t make sense. Words cannot be “smiled, giggled, laughed, or sighed.” Use “said” and save these actions for use as intended.
- Hemming and Hawing - In real life, we pause and add filler to conversation. Eliminate those fillers when writing to keep the reader engaged. Try to avoid phrases such as “um, so, well” that slow down the dialog.
Using fewer tags takes a little practice and critical reading to find examples to model. I am thrilled to say my example above contains exactly zero tags in it. *air high fives for everyone*
Don’t be intimidated by the minutia of punctuation that typically gives me hives, try using dialogue to fix sticky parts of a manuscript.
5 Dialogue Constructions
Here are 5 constructions of dialogue to use in your writing. Experience the following benefits to your dialogue:
- Use these to increase the variety in your writing.
- Write with confidence! Let those curly or straight quotes take a seat to your clever character’s words instead.
- Improve the readability of your work.
I’m using American English Rules to compile this list, but punctuation standards may differ by region and country. Always check with the editor or submission guidelines to see what style, or dictionary they prefer.
My examples below come from The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, in a scene where Holden is arguing with his roommate:
Dialogue Formatting Demystified:
- Single Line Quote - These have a line of dialogue within quotation marks and no tag. The sentence punctuation occurs within the quotes.
- Single Line Quote with Tag - A quotation with a tag, either before or after the quote. Note the punctuation differences for each location.
- Dialogue Tags within a Quote - add a natural pause with this strategic tag placement.
- Quotes with body language or actions within the dialogue - adding body language and small actions can control pacing and add depth to the words spoken.
Then, when he was taking off his tie, he asked me if I’d written his goddam composition for him. I told him it was over on his goddam bed. […]
All of the sudden, he said, “For Chrissake, Holden. This is about a goddam baseball glove.”
“So what?” I said. Cold as hell.
“Wuddaya mean so what? I told ya it had to be about a goddam room or a house or something.”
“You said it had to be descriptive. What the hell’s the difference if it’s about a baseball glove?”
“God damn it.” He was sore as hell. He was really furious. “You always do everything backasswards.” He looked at me. “No wonder you’re flunking the hell out of here,” he said. “You don’t do one damn thing the way you’re supposed to. I mean it. Not one damn thing.”
If you want more of a deep-dive into the mechanics of using quotations, this article explains why we place punctuation in specific parts of the sentence. It also explains more scenarios than I dig into here, with several simple examples to clarify these guidelines.
Hopefully, these writing tips will help to nail down the details of your newly renovated dialogue and help pick up the pace of your story.
What tools do you recommend we add to the writing dialogue toolbelt? Is there a grammar point you struggle with as a writer? Add some writer encouragement for better editing and share your thoughts with us today!
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Kris Maze is an author, freelance writer, and teacher. She enjoys writing twisty, speculative fiction with character-driven plots. After years of reading classic literature, mysteries, and thrillers, she began to write and publish her own books. She also writes for various publications including a regular post at the award-winning Writers in the Storm Blog.
When she isn’t spending time with her favorite people and pets, Kris Maze is taking pictures, hiking, or pondering the wisdom of Bob Ross. You can follow her author journey at her website at KrisMazeAuthor.com