Editing Dialog

I think it’s important to know your strengths and your weaknesses in life. Doubly so when you ‘re a writer, (read small business owner.) For instance, my weakness, which has been pointed out many times, is fight scenes. Probably because I don’t like to read them.

What I really am good with, though, is dialog. Talking, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. No one runs a blog who doesn’t like to hear themselves talk. But I really love writing dialog, and I think that’s why I’m good at it. But, like everything else with writing, the first draft is shitty, and the second draft is only a little bit better. It’s really my third draft that makes my dialog sing. Here’s how I edit dialog.

Read it out loud.

I read my whole second draft out loud. Every single page. When something makes my mouth trip, I highlight it. You ears know what sounds natural, and what doesn’t. So, if you read your work, especially your dialog, out loud, think about how you’d react if someone said this to you. Would it sound natural? If not, consider why.

Different character, different voice.

Reading your dialog out loud will also help you detect different voices in your characters. Not all of your characters will talk the same, at least you’d damn well better hope not. Each person’s word choice is based on their own personality, background and lifestyle. A bar maid’s going to talk differently than than a princess or a computer programmer. At the same time, a computer programmer will talk differently when she’s talking to a friend, parent or teacher.

This requires you to get into your characters. You should know how your character would say something, and what he or she would say in a given situation. I will straight up act out scenes, much to the amusement of my family.

All the grammar rules are thrown out the window.

We don’t talk how we’d write things down. We don’t talk with proper grammar. This is a good thing. So don’t keep to those rules when your characters are talking. Write how your character will actually talk. For example, my character uses the word ain’t. I really hate that word, it makes me itch. If I was writing a book with a character from around my home town, I might have them say “Yinz.” If you don’t speak Pittsburghese, Yinz means you guys or y’all. Like, “Yinz need to settle down!” Boy, do I want to punch everyone who says that word. But it’s perfectly fine if I’m trying to show you that this character’s from Pittsburgh.

Time period dialog.

If, that is, the character is from this time period. If this is a book set in the past, I’d chose something different. If you’re writing a book based in a different time, remember that you have to write how people talked then. If you’re writing a book set in the future, consider how people might talk then. One of my favorite examples of this is Firefly. People use random Chinese phrases in everyday life. That’s brilliant, I think. And speaking of brilliant…

Nationality dialog.

Consider where your character comes from. Back to our computer programmer analogy, a programmer from America will talk differently than one from India. In researching my book, I had to find Russian dialog to listen to, because one of my fictional countries is heavily based on Russia. That was fun, by the way, except for the fact that I had Checkov from Star Track stuck in my head for days. Nuclear Vessils. Hehehe, snort haha.

Take dialog editing seriously. Dialog is one of the strongest tools you’ve got to show us who your characters are. Make sure you take advantage of that.

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