Cutting to the Chase: Editing Dialogue in Fiction

Oh dialogue. It can be scary the first time you take it on. This is the case whether you're writing fiction, nonfiction, or memoir.

When I look over my work from previous decades, I find the dialogue is what needs the most help.

Usually, I've said too much, added hems and haws, or included information it wasn't natural to include.

Dialogue takes on a true-to-life sound when we break it up and keep it brief.

We tend not to use complete sentences when we speak, and most of us don't explain things at length—in fiction these become "info dumps."

Things to remember when writing dialogue:

  •  Avoid complete sentences. Leave off the first word. How different "Miss you," can sound versus, "I miss you," but it lands in an interesting way, off the cuff.
  • Don't worry about substituting fancy words for "said." That can be distracting or annoying. This word, said, is said to be pretty much invisible. You can mix it up now and then, but don't struggle with different verbs here. Try taking out the attribution altogether. Change paragraphs when a new speaker begins.
  • If it's not natural for the characters to provide certain information, ask: does the reader *really* need to know this? How can I get the information across in other ways?
  • Remember you're simulating natural speech. Fiction is not truth. (Memoir isn't even truth.) You don't have to include every word you normally would. Think of your favorite movie—now imagine a scene with a phone call. How often do you hear, "Hello?" and "Goodbye"? These things are implied, but clipped out—and our minds supply the niceties and fill in the chinks. Let the reader's mind fill things in, but don't belabor the back-and-forth of everyday exchanges.
  • To make it snappy, cut words. Then go through and cut it again. Chances are, it still makes sense. If not, see below.
  • Use body language, tone of voice, and gestures to show the emotion conveyed in these your brief snippets. Follow the glances. Show the eye contact or lack thereof. 
  • Use your character's breath. Pause the dialogue, and add she said where she would take a breath. If a run-on sentence, make it really a run-on sentence, to show character or emotion, but do this sparingly. She's gotta breathe sometime!
  • Make every character's voice their own. Know your characters, and what's special and different about how each one speaks.
  • Let your characters say what they need to say, but don't let words clutter the page. Make sure every word counts, means something, is placed, by you, with care. You are the master puppeteer, using exactly the language needed to tell the story.

Below is a snippet of mine, about 15 years old. Out of curiosity, I'm seeing how many words I can delete from these few lines of dialogue. And I'm adding some actions and gestures that fill in the emotions, as you can see. (In yellow.) Also, when the action happens right next to the dialogue, you don't need to say who is speaking. (It's most clear for the reader when you have one speaker per paragraph.)

They talked, hushed. Mom’s voice was choked. with tears and panic, said, “I don’t know. 

Grand sounded far away. Have you Been taking your medicine?”

Aunt Beryl said, shook her head.She Needs professional help.”

Grand said studied the tablecloth. She probably Got her dosage wrong. She’ll perk up.”

No,” said Aunt Beryl threw her hands up. “This is a real crisis.” She said something I couldn’t catch, and then, “Hensington Mental Hospital.” 

I hate That place,” moaned Mom.


Take a few lines of dialogue you've written, and trim. Read aloud to someone. And repeat! You are offering the experience of a real conversation, but it's art, and it's yours!

Feel the joy of that!


1 comment:

  1. This was so helpful, Christi. It really boils the basics down. thank you!


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