Recruit a friend or group of friends to read your dialogue out loud. Hearing your characters speak is the best way to gauge your dialogue’s effectiveness.
Dos & Don’ts to Remember
- Most dialogue is spare. Don’t give a character more than three uninterrupted sentences at time.
- Do your characters sound alike—same speech pattern, same vocabulary, even the same cadence in their dialogue.
- Read through your manuscript and look for those repeating turn of phrases that belong to you, and unless you’ve attributed them to one of your characters, delete them.
- Are your dialogue tags invisible? Do the characters’ actions show what they’re feeling or are you telling readers with obtrusive verbs and adverbs? Use the verb said almost exclusively and avoid modifying it. Write your dialogue to stand without a crutch—so that speak for itself, in other words.
- Make your dialogue information-dense but not obvious. Trust your readers to read between the lines.
- Don’t insert character names in dialogue to keep readers informed of who’s speaking.
- No matter how serious a subject, a bit humor usually finds its way in good dialogue.
- With inner dialogue, don’t say she thought to herself or he thought in his head. He or she thought is sufficient.
- Don’t script your characters to say something others already know.
- Eliminate dialogue that doesn’t further the scene or deepen readers’ understanding of the characters.
Peruse your dialogue for explanations. Highlight every mention of an emotion outside of dialogue, as these are typically explanations telling readers what should be shown. Does the dialogue demonstrate your intention if you delete the extraneous reference? If not, then rewrite your dialogue.
How about your speaker attributions? Any verbs other than said? Verbs like replied or answered also said’s unobtrusiveness (though there are exceptions). Can you delete some of your speaker attributions entirely? Drop them and see if it remains clear who’s doing the talking. If not, try replacing some with beats.
When you hear your dialogue read out loud, do you pick up areas that tempt you alter the wording? If so, alter the wording. Does your dialogue sound natural? Does it match the character delivering it? How well do your characters understand each other? Do they mislead each other or lie? Could you use more contractions, more fragmented sentences, more run-ons?
Does your characters’ interior monologue sound like their dialogue, as it should? How much interior monologue do you have? If you seem to rely on interior monologue, look to see whether some of it is disguised dialogue description. Are you using interior monologue to show things that should be told? Should some of your longer passages be turned into scenes? Are you writing in first person when your narrative is in the third person? If so, do your mechanics match your narrative?