Writing and Editing Dialogue

Writing and Editing Dialogue by Clark Chamberlain | Jun 23, 2016

Writing and editing dialogue is a tricky business! But fear not, we’re here to help wrestle those words into line. Join Peter Turley and Leslie Watts as they discuss what to avoid when writing dialogue and give you some great tips on how to write compelling dialogue that lives and breathes. For Leslie’s Quick Sheet on Punctuating Dialogue click here.


Leslie: Welcome to The Book Editors Show. Today we’re discussing writing and editing dialogue. I’m Leslie Watts, standing in for Clark Chamberlain.

In a world plagued by on the nose and rapid fire dialogue, with tags that excessively employ adverbs, one man has gone to the ends of the Earth, battling Komodo Dragons, Siberian Tigers, and Polar Bears to find the true secret of writing and editing dialogue that is full of tension, conflict, and awesome sauce. That man is my friend and The Book Editors Show co-host Peter Turley.

Peter, how are you today?

Peter: Talk about awesome sauce there, I thought that intro was pretty awesome sauce Clark’s going to have a bit of a challenge on his hands when he returns from his part time good guy gig, I think.

Leslie: It was a treat. I was looking forward to that part the most.

Peter: I know, yesterday you were pretty excited about it. I’ve been thinking about it for at least 24 hours, so it was worth the wait anyways.

Leslie: Oh, good.

Peter: Today we’re talking about dialogue. We’re going to be talking about a few pitfalls that are quite easy to fall into when writing dialogue. How you should structure dialogue including punctuation and then a few tips that you can take away when you’re writing and going back and editing your dialogue.

So we were discussing one of the major pitfalls of dialogue can be using dialogue as exposition. Do you want to talk a little bit about what that might mean for anyone that doesn’t really know what that could be?

Leslie: I think it comes in different varieties, but one thing that happens is you get the —

“As you know, Bob, this button transforms the whatever-thing…”

I should have written a fun example. But the point is that the only purpose for the dialogue is to give some information. It’s not revealing character; it’s not doing anything else like showing a reaction to something that has happened.

It’s just, — oh I need this information conveyed and I’m going to give you a bunch of stuff.

Peter: Yes, it’s more for the author than the character.

I think a good way to spot that is the example you’ve just given, when a character is saying something to another character that that character would already know. If you spot that in the dialogue then, yes.

We don’t set out to out and be like — oh I think I’m going to use this as a little shock to get something across.

Sometimes we do it unconsciously and we don’t realize we’re doing it, because it’s easy to do isn’t it? It’s easy to slip out a bit of backstory or to just tell a reader something that we think they need to know and use dialogue to do that. It’s not like we always do it on purpose. It’s really common isn’t it? It’s something that happens all over the place I bet.

As an editor, is that something you see a lot?

Leslie: Yes, I see it. I think what happens is that people know — oh I’m not supposed to do an info dump; I’m not supposed to tell all of this — and that dialogue is action, essentially; it is “showing,” so I’m going to go — this is better — and it is better, but you have to go back through it and find that stuff and pick it up.

Peter: Yes, that’s a great point. I’m thinking Writing 101, I’m told to avoid “info dump” and it’s dialogue, so by default it can’t be an info dump or it can’t be exposition. But it can.

So it definitely takes a trained eye to spot when that is happening.

Leslie: It’s easier to spot in other people’s work though I will say because, I’m guilty of it as well.

Peter: Definitely. If you can get in the habit of not doing this during the writing process, then that’s great and you’re really well on your way. But this definitely applies to the editing process, because it is hard to spot. We’ll talk about some tips later on on how you can look for certain things within your dialogue.

I think another major pitfall — this is something I’ve seen a lot and done — is using the same voice for all dialogue. I know using voice is a tricky thing. But it can be easily done where, all the dialogue, if we took it out the book and just had it on a page, we wouldn’t necessarily be able to know which character was speaking, because it’s just this generic dialogue way of writing.

Do you ever see anything like that?

Leslie: Yes, and honestly, in writing that, it’s really hard for me to give different characters distinct voices. I definitely see it in the manuscripts I edit, that you just get on a roll.

I think this is how I think it happens — that you get on a roll and you may not have the characters distinguished in your head in terms of how they speak differently and that kind of thing. So everybody ends up using the same words, using the same phrases and sounding a lot the same.

Peter: So this is something that can happen mainly if you haven’t fully flushed out your character, or you don’t know your character well enough. So perhaps spending some time creating character sheets and really getting into the head of your character and making sure you know their motivations can help to avoid this.

I think that it’s important to remember that — and it’s the same for us as well as like, characters in a book — generally, when we speak it’s because we want something and there’s a reason to who is speaking. It’s important to consider that to avoid this pitfall.

What is personal to this character? They’re going to be speaking for a different reason than the other person or persons that they are having a conversation with. I think that’s a good way to just get more into that mind of each character, individually.

Obviously you don’t want to go too overboard with accents and dialects and think — OK, I want to make it clear that this one character is speaking, so I’m going to have them speak with a Southern drawl in every word that I write, which just makes the whole prose quite difficult to get through.

Leslie: Right? Don’t get me wrong, I love accents as much as the next girl. But, in the text it can be really distracting.

If we think of it as the cayenne pepper, in the dish and you only want just a little tiny bit of it when you want to show that somebody has a particular dialect, or a particular accent — just one or two words. Let that settle in the reader’s mind, and then for the most part write it normally.

Peter: That’s a great analogy to think of it as cayenne pepper. You’re really not going to want too much of it.

You made me think there; that’s kind of like when you’re writing a character and you’re like — I’m going to make this character really unique and quirky.

So you give them loads of “traits.” Maybe it’s like a nervous tic or a way they walk or…

In Fifty Shades of Grey, the character is famously always biting her lip. What would this person actually look like in real life, if they did all of these things all of the time, if they had all of these tics and traits, they’d just look like the comic caricature, so to speak.

Leslie: Right, and everyone would just — walk away. No, I’m not going to interact with you.

Peter: It’s like, I’m a speaker with an accent all the time; it’s like — OK, we know that you’re Scottish, or we know where you’re from.

Leslie: We get it. You can lay off.

Peter: Dialogue has still got to be accessible. It’s still got to be as easy to read as the rest of the book or the rest of the work needs to be.

We agreed on a third pitfall — and this is a bit general but we’ll get into what we mean by this — is weak dialogue.

When a dialogue is weak or we’re not too confident in the character or there’s a particular reason why it’s coming across weak, we tend to overcompensate with our toolbox. We’ll use beats too often; we’ll use a variety of different tags in order to strengthen our dialogue. This is easily done, because on first pass it does strengthen the dialogue because a tag could be used to assist the sentence; it gives it a bit more power in conveying to the reader what way this was said. So was it said angrily? Was it said shyly? Or anything like that. I’m guessing this is something you see quite often.

Leslie: Yes. I think this is rough draft material and it’s Writing 1.0. Because as we’re writing, we’re picturing it in our mind and we’re trying to get through the scene. So the adverb or the elaborate beats can be the bookmark for when we come back later. The important thing is to go through “2.0” and “3.0” and edit those things out and make sure that the speech is strong and that it reveals character, that it can stand on its own, that you don’t need… You don’t want to draw attention to the tag and to the adverb; you want to draw attention to the speech.

Peter: You had a great quote from James Scott Bell saying, “If you think of speech as action it will keep you from writing soggy in a dialogue.”

Speeches actually remind you that characters talk in fiction because they want to further their own ends, and it is that idea that kind of strengthens the dialog. Because you wrote some pretty funny things about “on the nose” dialog.

So what do you mean by “on the nose dialog?”

Leslie: “On the nose” is like — “hey how are you doing?”

Peter: Which are things that we do actually say.

Leslie: We do. That’s the thing. The point is of course, in fiction we are trying to cut away the stuff that doesn’t support the story, doesn’t add to the story.

Two characters speaking just to speak, with no story reason — its boring.

If we want that we can go talk to whomever we encounter in the world. What we want in the story is we want a very well-crafted experience. That means that every piece of dialog is in there for a reason, not just because we need somebody to say something.

Peter: Yes. You can think of dialog almost as its own scene in the sense that, when you are editing — often in first drafts — we can need to write our way into a scene just so that the scene gets out, just so we get through it.

Then when we go back, sometimes we might look at it and we might think — how late into this scene can I actually start? Can I cut a load, like a page or a paragraph before the real action happens?

It’s the same with dialog. If we see these “on the nose” things like — hey how are you; oh I’m fine — maybe whats happened is you’re just writing your way into the dialog and your writing your way into the action, as you would a scene.

Think of it like that and look at the dialog and think — where is the action happening? Or where is the real motivation taking place? What can I get rid of around that to leave me with that really distilled dialog that’s a lot stronger without these things?

Leslie: I totally agree. It can get to the point.

In the end, that is the way that a lot of times that “throat clearing” is how we get to the heart of the scene and the heart of what these people want to say. So it’s a natural thing to have this and have it in the first draft. Then it’s just a process of finding it and getting down to the meat of it, so to speak.

Peter: You don’t want to have a standard of yourself which is — I never do this — because we’d never get through first drafts if we held ourselves to that standard.

I know we say it several times, but this applies to editing and this is when the real magic happens and we look for these things. We get used to spotting them a little more easily each time, hopefully.

Let’s talk a little bit about structure now and how we can structure dialogue differently.

We mentioned tags before, so let’s talk about what a tag is, which ones are better to use and perhaps where exactly in the sentence should be or where in the dialogue they should be.

Leslie: The “tag” is the thing that identifies who speaking. Generally — said, “Fred said.”

You can get really elaborate and you can say, Suzy growled or hissed or… There’s a wide range of what you can do. But again going back to what you said earlier, it’s more important that the tag disappear into the background,. Because what you want the reader to get is the speech and what the character is saying.

Having this elaborate or fancy dialogue tag — it distracts the reader. You want to use “said” as much as possible. The tag generally goes after the speech, unless it’s not completely clear who is speaking; then you might put it after the first sentence. That’s what James Scott Bell recommends — that if you have a long speech you put the tag after the first sentence and then continue the speech so that the reader easily knows who it is. But if it comes before it can be a little distracting though. It’s certainly fine in certain contexts.

Peter: Yes. Structure is something that we can use as well to make it more pleasurable to write and also more pleasurable to read. I know you have a quick sheet on punctuating dialogue that has some great examples of different ways that you can structure sentences. I think it’s good. It is great to mix it up sometimes, just for a little bit of freshness. Obviously you don’t want to write every line of dialogue differently and to just not have an author style or a writing style. But maybe every now and then it can help keep it a little fresh to include one of these things. I think we’ll include this in the show notes so people can check it out because that’s a really helpful worksheet that you’ve put together there.

Leslie: Yes.

Peter: Do we always need dialogue tags? Obviously we can put them at the end; we can put them after the first sentence. Can we get rid of them altogether?

Leslie: When it’s clear who’s speaking, then you don’t need to have a dialogue tag every time. It’s really a functional piece of the dialogue sentence, that is, you use it when there would be confusion. Otherwise you can cut it, which — oh! — some people might be concerned about. But I think as long as it’s clear from the context who’s speaking, then it’s not necessary.

Peter: I think that’s it. That’s a great exercise when editing one chapter, to think — I’m going to be on the lookout for when I can omit tags entirely, and I’m going to take on this chapter or this scene and I’m going to look at my dialogue and I’m going to think, “is it clear who’s speaking?” obviously, without excessively using beats. Or…

From the scene, maybe there’s only two people there, is it clear and can I get rid of the tag? Because by getting rid of it where you can afford to, I think that means that you can be more liberal when you need to? So without just having dialogue tags just everywhere all the time, which is why it is I think important to try and stick with “said” as often as you can, because it’s safer and because we use them so much. It does help not to draw attention to them in that way.

We mentioned “rapid fire dialogue.” What’s that?

Leslie: Rapid fire dialogue is where you have just — he said; she said; he said; she said.

It’s just dialogue sentence after dialogue sentence after dialogue sentence. Nothing is happening. The people aren’t having an internal reaction; your point of view character is not having an internal reaction, and nobody is really doing anything. It speeds the scene up.

Sometimes you might want to have a moment, a small section where you do have a lot of dialogue stacked up, but for the most part you want to be weaving in bits of the setting, bits of action to make it a more… It’s a tapestry, not just a list. That’s not very good. I’m not sure that works.

Peter: I can imagine it, yes. It’s weaved into the sentences amongst beats and description; it’s not just this big thin column bordered by white space. That can be almost as eye-rolling as when you see a big thick page with no white space, and you’re like — ugh this page isn’t going to be too much fun to read.

Just as you see a big list of dialogue, you’re like — brace yourself for an utter back and forth.

Leslie: It’s almost like you, the reader, feels breathless at the end of a passage like that, as if they were having to read it all out loud. Totally agree.

Peter: Like anything, because obviously we don’t ever want to say, “never do this.” It has it’s place and it’s about figuring out when you want to use these to your advantage. When you’re trying to increase the pace of a scene, then this can be really effective to do in short bursts. Maybe if there’s an argument, you might see a little bit of this.

So again, it’s going to happen and I think it is important to consider — when do I want to use this?

Leslie: You mentioned a couple of times having excessive, descriptive beats and how that can be distracting to the reader as well.

Peter: If we talk about what a beat is — a beat is where we can punctuate the dialog with something that happens. So a character doing something, interacting with the scene around them. There are lot of examples of this on the sheet that we are going to put in the show notes. But they can be used effectively to add variation and, like you say, to weave this tapestry of dialog.

But again, is this something that can really be overused? Have you got any examples? Is this something that you see in a lot of writing that you edit and people using beats too much and, like you mentioned earlier, perhaps to strengthen dialog. I think this is something that is quite hard to do well.

Leslie: What I will find mixed in often with the dialog often, is a lot of stage direction-type descriptive beats, where the person will say something. Then they do like five things in order that wouldn’t necessarily be… It would be better to compress those things and to pick like one or two actions that reveal character or reveal how the person is feeling or how they’re reacting to what’s being said.

You do want to limit that and make sure that if it’s… Make sure it’s necessary and make sure it’s supporting the scene and conveying what you need to convey for the story.

Peter: Yes, really well said. That quote comes to mind, I can’t remember for the life of me where it’s from. You know, the one about the gun in the room? If you put a gun in the room, someone better use it.

Leslie: Nabokov? I don’t know; I can’t remember; I wouldn’t want to misattribute.

Peter: I wouldn’t want to misquote it. That applies to beats as well. If a character is interacting with something in the middle of dialogue, then this thing should be important. It should come into the scene as the scene moves along and not just the walking around the room, like picking everything up and doing all these things that are irrelevant, really.

Leslie: It’s the functional equivalent of the “on the nose” dialogue. It would be “on the nose” descriptive beats. Yes, people do that, but it is important to the story? Probably not, a lot of it.

Again it’s that stuff that’s left over from the first draft that we put in because we’re working our way through it.

Peter: Yes, so you wouldn’t want to have a character talking away but while they’re talking they rub their shoulder or something. You think — is this an important injury or is this something we’re going to… But then nothing comes of it; it’s just something that the character did for no real reason.

Leslie: I think remembering that when we mention those things — some little action, some little thing — that the reader is holding that in their head as a sort of open loop. So if we give them too many things to hold like that that aren’t important, then we’re sort of taxing their ability to enjoy the story.

Peter: We’re also “training” to miss important plot points later on. So when we do drop something in, they are kind of like — meh, that doesn’t matter.

Leslie: I’ll just disregard it. I don’t have a plan, I don’t have a… That’s exactly what it should be, especially in the beginning. You should be training the reader to notice what they are suppose to notice, and then that way they will pick up on all of those things that you want them to pick up on.

Peter: So I think, you know, move forward cautiously and use them sparsely, which I think is the key.

Punctuating and dialog.

Obviously we talked about different structures we can use. Generally it’s the same rules of punctuation really, isn’t it, that we would follow with any other line that we would write within the book.

Leslie: If it’s not very exciting it doesn’t translate well to audio, which is why we have the dialog punctuation sheet to help out with this.

It’s a dialog sentence and the dialog sentence consists of the speech, which is in quotation marks which is joined to the tag, which is also part of that sentence generally with a comma but sometimes with a question mark because, you know, if it’s a question. Then the descriptive beat as well is often part of that sentence.

But if all you have is the speech and then a descriptive beat — those are two separate sentences. It’s the dialog tag that pulls them together and makes them one sentence. Then of course there’s variation with — in the UK, you use single quotes and often times where the comma and the period goes in the dialog is more about function rather than about… We just in the States as a matter of course we put commas and periods inside the quotation marks, where as in the UK English it’s more functionally based and often appears outside.

Peter: Head over and look at that sheet for a really in-depth look at this.

Obviously with punctuation, we don’t want to take away artistic license in being able to break some of these rules consciously and stylistically. But like any rule, you need to know it before you choose to break it. I think a good thing to do is to take a book that you’re reading or a book that you like, and look at the dialog and look at how it’s written, how it’s punctuated.

That’s the best way to learn these things, really. Spell checkers and things can be a little bit of a nightmare sometimes, especially if you’re trying to make a stylistic choice. So just pick up a book and look through these things.

So I’ve got a couple of tips here that you can take away just to sort of help when you’re looking over your dialog and you’re trying to think “what am I looking for and what can I do?”

I think one of the great places to start firstly is to check the strength of the dialog by removing all tags and beats and considering how well the dialog stands on it’s own. I think that’s a great first move to troubleshoot your dialog.

Leslie: Definitely. If you strip it down, does it make sense? Is it important?

I would also add that you’d want to take one pass through your manuscript where all you’re looking at is the dialog, so that you’re focusing on it and not getting distracted by other things. Then definitely reading it aloud. Of course, I’m a fan of reading the whole manuscript aloud, but particularly the dialog and how does it sound to your mind’s ear? It’s easier to tell how it sounds to your mind’s ear if you read it aloud. So I think that I would definitely recommend doing both of those.

Peter: Reading aloud is a powerful tool. I think even more so it’s like reading aloud and recording it and then listening back. You don’t have to do this for the whole thing, but even just a scene, this could work pretty well.

Leslie: OK, I’m writing that one down, because I hadn’t thought of that.

Peter: That’s something I do, especially with opening scenes and openings, to see how powerful it is and how much it’s drawing you in and how engaging it is. It’s always fun to do it in a little bit of an accent and to listen to it back and to just see how it sounds. How would this sound as an audiobook? Does it sound like you think it sounds when you’re writing it because sometimes there can be a disparity there and this is the only way you’re really going to figure that out I think. And it’s fun.

Leslie: Yes. It’s funny you mention “audiobook.” Thinking about that, considering that, because recently I was editing a manuscript, and I knew that it was going to be eventually an audiobook, and I saw places where I thought “Oh, those consonants together are going to be hard to say.”

That made me think there were probably other things that the audiobook narrators are like “Oh, I wish they wouldn’t do this.” So I’m planning to talk to a few of them in the near future to get some tips on how to edit your book for audiobooks, which is an aside, but is just an interesting thing to think about. As you move from Writing 1.0 to 2.0 and 3.0, the more things that you consider and the tighter your manuscript becomes and the better it delivers your story.

Peter: Yes, that’s excellent. I think that about wraps me up for dialog. Do you have anything else you want to add?

Leslie: Probably. I mean I can talk about this for a long time, but let me say one last thing.

One other thing is to look at the balance of dialog and not dialog.

There’s the dialog that is the rapid fire dialog and you have dialog with too many descriptive beats, but then on the page, make sure your scenes have a good amount of dialog in them to balance out the rest of the action and exposition.

Peter: Yes, that’s important. That’s one I haven’t considered really — am I under-using it or over-using it.

Leslie: So much to think about.

Peter: Try not to be overwhelmed. take one thing at a time. It’s good to go through and just pick one of these things, like anything and work on one thing at a time.

Leslie: I agree. I’m so glad you mentioned that because it can be overwhelming — oh I have to do this and I have to watch out for this and edit this out and then…

Yes, it’s just one step at a time.

Peter: That’s just a good way to just miss things I think if you take too much on. That’s why we have — second edits.

Leslie: Right. Multiple passes. Don’t take just one pass at that manuscript, it’s worth another.

Peter: You’re worth it.

OK. If you liked the show please leave a review on iTunes a plus on Google or a like on YouTube, and if you’re an editor who would like to be a guest on the show, stop by thebookeditorshow.com and drop us an email. I’m Pete Turley and for our co-host Leslie Watts, keep writing and keep learning and write a better book.

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