- Always put name before noun. Unless you're from Elizabethan times, "said William" is archaic. Enough said?
- Keep character references consistent. I know, I get tired of writing a character's name over and over, too. But if you're writing a party scene and "the meter maid knocked over the chocolate fountain", your reader's probably going to have to stop and remember whether that's referring to Lucy, Rita, or Prudence.
- Use ellipses for gaps or pauses, and dashes for interruptions. I had to break myself into this habit: I'm pretty fond of dashes. But if you're consistent with these, it's easier to distinguish between someone who's mid-thought, or just noticed something that's about to turn your scene on its ear.
- For the most part, use 'said'. I admit to fighting this one tooth and nail, until I realized how much weight good dialogue could carry. Nothing jerks your reader out of a great conversation by the collar like building up to a reluctant confession, then having your guilty party whisper, sigh, or (heavens, no) murmur it. If you absolutely need to remind the reader who's speaking, but have no beat to go with it? Said. Said, said, said. It's such a simple word that they'll roll right over it without hesitation. With that in mind....
- Can speaker attributions be dropped or replaced with beats? If you have two characters in a conversation, your reader should only need an occasional reminder of who's speaking. Likewise, if only one person in the room is written with a specific dialect, they'll go stickin' out right an' cleah without you needin' ta point 'em out. Ayuh. If you can't axe an attribution and you're dead set against a simple "said", put a beat on it: have the character do something relevant to how they're feeling or where they are.
- Let dialogue show emotion as much as possible, not the description. It's far more telling and interesting to have Bill say: "That dirty, rotten, spud-muttering jackanape! I was saving that last can of Pepsi Clear for a special occasion!" than "Liam took the last soda". Of course, if it adds to the scene, you can always throw in a nice, solid beat like kicking the fridge closed and stubbing his toes in the process. Just remember that people can use very different words, depending on how they feel, and don't always think before they speak. Which leads us to...
- Let dialogue be misinterpreted! Communication is a tricky business: your characters aren't always going to understand one another. Terry may say his friend is over-reacting about that can of soda, until Bill explains that it's the last of a case his great-aunt brought to his high school graduation. (Hey. We never said poor Bill was 100% sane.) If you let your characters misunderstand from time to time, your scenes could end up going in some unexpected, yet useful, directions. Obviously, this sort of thing applies to language barriers, too.
- Is your dialogue in-character? At the surface, this seems like a pretty dumb question: you're the author and they're in-character if you say they are, right? Wrongo. Aside from killing off favorite characters, losing sight of their motivation is the most likely thing to make your reader want to throw your book across the room and hesitate to pick it back up again. I had some fantastic zingers coming out of Buster's mouth during a climactic moment: really great, hard-hitting stuff. But I was caught up in what some of the best lines would be for the scene in general: not the best lines for Buster, who wasn't anywhere near mean-spirited enough to actually say them. Re-reading that scene in the context of the rest of the novel felt like watching a stranger. So, the lines went back into my bin of words, where a harder character with far less tact and consideration will probably dig them out later.
- Interior Monologue: Is it necessary, and does it sound different from your narration? As a rule of thumb, try to only share the interior thoughts of your main character. If you delve into the heads of too many other people, readers may be confused about who they're supposed to focus on. You're following one - maybe two or three - people through this story, and they're the ones you want to have people relate to the most. But if your main character's internal voice sounds too much like your narration, you may need to step back to the previous checkpoint and get inside their head a little. You might have all sorts of flowery, wordy ways to think about what's in front of them: but they may not be the sort of person to have the same thought.
- Read it aloud. The best way to check your dialogue is to sit down with it and read it like a script. If it sounds scripted, it needs work so that it'll flow like a natural conversation. I know that we're talking about writing, here, but for a great example, check out this snippet of conversation about self-defense from Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof". (The movie is rated R, so avoid it if you're not fond of strong language.)
Really, if there's one thing all of these dialogue-editing points have in common, it's this: don't bring your reader up out of the scene. Think about the last time someone interrupted you while you were in the middle of a really good book. Now, imagine if the author did that to you! These editing points will help keep your reader comfortably engrossed in your scenes, and they'll come back out to the real world and remember that they were actually reading a book when they're ready: not when you remind them that they are.
Okay, here's the deal. I know I said that this would be the last post in the Rainbow Editing Method, but I'm feeling like it needs one more to pull it together and wrap it up well. So, I beg your patience in that regard. The second shade of blue - Dialogue, Editing and Sound - is dark blue. I tend to be heavy on dialogue, since I write a lot of loudmouths who like to bicker with one another. So, since this is the biggest checklist I have, let's dive right in! We'll start with mechanics and move into meatier stuff toward the end.
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