Dialogue: All the Time, No Exceptions

Lately I’ve been talking about editing and how I treat my work differently if I know it’s going to be read aloud. Writing instructors and agents have often talked about the importance of reading your work aloud, but they seldom talk about why.

So let’s get into it.

It’s a matter of dialogue. Everyone loves writing it (especially me). Dialogue is action. Dialogue is interesting. Dialogue fills in the holes when we think we can’t convey through narration and description. It’s a safety net. It’s a catch-all.

On the other hand, there’s narration. It’s, like, description and stuff. We’ll go out with narration because we have to, but while we’re taking narration to dinner and a movie, we’re dreaming of dialogue.

And that’s where we go wrong.

Reading aloud turns everything into dialogue: narration, description, quotations, warts, farts, rambles, passive descriptions, the same idea reworded in three consecutive sentences — you get the idea. If you were sitting on a park bench with your friend, recounting the story as if it had just happened to you, chances are good that your narration would be written differently. It would sound like dynamic dialogue. It wouldn’t sound like Rain Man.

Gotta get my boxer shorts at K-Mart. K-Mart! Boxer shorts. K-Mart!

Do you have a dialogue between two people? The narrator is the third person in the conversation. Give them a persona. Give them some quirks. Don’t just describe the room, give them a point of view about the way the room looks.

If your story is in first person, the inner monologue is your protagonist’s personality magnified many times.

So your protag would be set to a 7. Your inner monologue would be set to a 10. Or an 11. (Insert Spinal Tap joke here.)

During the editing process, I’ve found that a good rule of thumb is this: I first go through and make edits the regular way. (I read it and get critical, make changes, pull some of my hair out, etc.) Then I wait until the next day or two. I like to copy and paste my section into a different format, because it gives it a fresh look. It’s like rearranging your bedroom or living room. It’s all the same stuff, it just looks new. Then I read it to myself, imagining that I’m sitting in front of a friend, telling the tale. While you read, ask yourself:

Does it sound like a natural conversation?
Does it make sense?

Those two questions alone should give you a good benchmark for editing and flow.

7 thoughts on “Dialogue: All the Time, No Exceptions

  1. Mark Lidstone says:

    Excellent post Jen. I’ve always loved narration with a personality. I’ve always found Jim Butcher to do a great job with internal dialogue. Really felt I could relate to Harry Dresden. Very personable. Definitely at an 11 haha

    Like

    • Jen says:

      I agree, Jim Butcher really does have great sarcasm and a bit of smarm. I think he channels Robert B. Parker, who wrote the Spenser series. If you haven’t checked those out, would definitely recommend him. The books are pretty tight, and everything the main character says and thinks makes me laugh out loud. My guilty pleasure would be to act like Spenser for a day, but without the repercussions.

      Like

  2. Kim Sullivan says:

    Yikes! I’m freaked out now, because you just read my story, which had plenty of dialogue, but I wrote it in like one hour and didn’t edit…Well, that will teach me to be more careful what I post! :)

    Like

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