Karen S. Wiesner: Fiction Fundamentals: Writing Elbow Grease, Part 5B Editing and Polishing Dialogue Tip Sheet

Karen S. Wiesner: Fiction Fundamentals: Writing Elbow Grease, Part 5B Editing and Polishing Dialogue Tip Sheet


Writer's Craft Article

Fiction Fundamentals: Writing Elbow Grease, Part 5B

Editing and Polishing Dialogue Tip Sheet

by Karen S. Wiesner

Based on Cohesive Story Building, Volume 2: 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection

In this three month, in-depth series, we're going to go over what could be considered the grunge work in building a cohesive story. Revising, editing, and polishing require a little or a lot of writing elbow grease to finish the job and bring forth a strong and beautiful book.

In the previous part of this series, we discussed editing and polishing tricks and covered description tips. This time we'll go over editing and polishing dialogue tips.

Tip Sheet: Dialogue

Effective dialogue can transform a story into something unforgettable. External dialogue is everything characters say out loud, to themselves occasionally, most often to other characters in the story. Dialogue is important in a story. Few writers would tell you otherwise, but few realize just how essential it is. You'll most notice how effective dialogue can be in fleshing out a story when you take it out of your writing.For instance, take a look at this passage written entirely without dialogue:

She told us there was five hundred dollars in the envelope. That what she was about to ask us was very unusual and we might not want to do it. If we did decide not to accept, the five hundred dollars was for us to forget all about her.

I told her I'd pretend she was my algebra lessons in high school.

Roger glared at me as if my sparkling wit might scare her off, and asked what she wanted us to do.

She leaned forward confidentially. She wanted us to dig up her husband's grave.

Roger and I simultaneously leaned forward. I begged her pardon.

Her husband was buried last night, she explained, and she wanted us to dig up the coffin.

It was clear from Roger's expression that he considered this task quite a bit less appealing than wild kinky sex. He asked her if she was kidding.

She shook her head, saying she was completely serious.

Was this the kind of thing she usually asked people in coffee shops? Maybe she walked in here by mistake thinking it was Maude and Vinny's Discount Graverobbing Emporium.

Now read the same passage as it's actually published--with effective and varied dialogue--in Jeff Strand's Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary):

"Inside this envelope is five hundred dollars. What I'm going to ask is very unusual, and you may not want to do it. If you decide not to accept, the five hundred dollars is for you to forget all about me. Deal?"

"Sounds great," I said. "I'll just pretend you were my algebra lessons in high school."

Roger glares at me as if my sparkling wit might scare her off. "What do you want us to do?"

She leaned forward confidentially. "I want you to dig up my husband's grave."

Roger and I simultaneously leaned forward. "I beg your pardon?" I asked.

"My husband was buried last night, and I want you to dig up the coffin."

It was clear from Roger's expression that he considered this task quite a bit less appealing than wild kinky sex. "You're kidding, right?"

She shook her head. "I'm completely serious."

"Is this the kind of thing you usually ask people in coffee shops?" I inquired. "Are you sure you didn't walk in here by mistake thinking it was Maude and Vinny's Discount Graverobbing Emporium?"

Undeniably, dialogue truly adds spice and impact to any story, so use it effectively.

Passages or an entire chapter made up of nothing but dialogue can cause readers to lose focus on everything outside the dialogue. You might laugh about that because it's so obvious, but, in my many years of critiquing unpublished contest entries, this is one of the most commonly made mistakes I've seen.

We discussed the importance of using dialogue effectively, but let's turn it around this time. Instead of taking the dialogue completely out of a passage to see how necessary it is, let's make the passage all dialogue. Look at the next example:

"Will it come back today?" Ramo asked.

"It may," I answered him. "More likely it will come after many suns, for the country where it has gone is far off."

"I do not care if the ship never comes," he said.

"Why do you say this?" I asked him.

"Why?" I asked again.

"Because I like it here with you," he said. "It is more fun than when the others were here. Tomorrow I am going to where the canoes are hidden and bring one back to Coral Cove. We will use it to fish in and to go looking around the island."

"They are too heavy for you to put into the water."

"You will see."

"You forget that I am the son of Chowig," he said.

"I do not forget," I answered. "But you are a small son. Someday you will be tall and strong and then you will be able to handle a big canoe."

The passage is pure dialogue, and it reads like bullets firing from a gun. (I call writing like this "dialogue bullets".) When dialogue is used exclusively, you don't find out who's talking, and you lose focus on the characters, their goals and motivations, and their emotions in the scene.

Now read an effectively written version of the same passage as it was published in Scott O'Dell's classic, Island of the Blue Dolphins:

The air was clear and we could look far out to sea in the direction the ship had gone.

"Will it come back today?" Ramo asked.

"It may," I answered him, though I did not think so. "More likely it will come after many suns, for the country where it has gone is far off."

Ramo looked up at me. His black eyes shone.

"I do not care if the ship never comes," he said.

"Why do you say this?" I asked him.

Ramo thought, making a hole in the earth with the point of his spear.

"Why?" I asked again.

"Because I like it here with you," he said. "It is more fun than when the others were here. Tomorrow I am going to where the canoes are hidden and bring one back to Coral Cove. We will use it to fish in and to go looking around the island."

"They are too heavy for you to put into the water."

"You will see."

Ramo threw out his chest. Around his neck was a string of sea-elephant teeth which someone had left behind. It was much too large for him and the teeth were broken, but they rattled as he thrust the spear down between us.

"You forget that I am the son of Chowig," he said.

"I do not forget," I answered. "But you are a small son. Someday you will be tall and strong and then you will be able to handle a big canoe."

The scene now has focus and the text takes you right inside the scene and the characters. You not only feel with them, you see what's around them in the scene and get a glimpse of what they're doing physically. The dialogue provides a catalyst to all this, advancing plot and characterization.

As a general rule, only use "dialogue bullets" when you need to create extreme tension. Here's an example, from Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, of how this can be done proficiently without losing any of the texture:

"How's Maude Rainey?" he asked.

"She's in good health," Call said. "She fed me twice."

"Good thing it was just twice," Augustus said. "If you'd stayed a week you'd have had to rent an ox to get home on."

"She's anxious to sell you some more pigs," Call said, taking the jug and rinsing his mouth with whiskey.

"If Joe was to get kilt I might court her again," Augustus speculated.

"I hope you will," Call said. "Them twelve young ones ought to have a good father. What are the horses doing back here so soon?"

"Why, grazing, most likely," Augustus said.

"Didn't Pedro make a try?"

"No, he didn't, and for a very good reason," Augustus said.

"What reason would that be?"

"Because he died," Augustus said.

The dialogue in this passage effectively manages to convey characters, emotions, goals and motivations, plot, even setting, all sprinkled liberally with a good deal of humor.

Effective internal dialogue can flesh out your characters. Internal monologue is everything the characters don't say out loud; these are essentially their thoughts. Not everyone can write this type of dialogue effectively, so play around with it for a while. There are two types of internal monologue, and you can use whichever one is most effective for a particular scene. The following example, from my novel Falling Star, is fine as is:

He was smooth all right. Nate chided himself as Rori disappeared into her father's house. With a little more practice, he could apply to snake charming school.

Add internal monologue and it really turns the paragraph into something personal and intriguing:

That was smooth, Nate chided himself as Rori disappeared into her father's house. Very smooth. You could apply to snake charming school with a little more practice.

The second example brings the reader directly into the character's thoughts and has much more impact. Effective dialogue always reveals character.

Dialogue--what a character says and how he says it--reveals the inner person, and more. The manner in which a character speaks and the particular words she chooses say something about her. Dialogue will and should reflect who the character is, even what she does for a living.

On the other hand, the occasional character who doesn't fit her stereotyped mold is always intriguing to a reader. Make a bad boy or a cowboy philosophize about the poetic insight of Shakespeare. Make a wallflower put on a vixen red dress and stiletto heels and temporarily act out of character.

Take a look at this example of dialogue reflecting character from Marilyn Pappano's A Dangerous Man:

A faint tinge of color accompanied her next shrug. "The body. The muscles. The grace. You're obviously in very good shape, and you move very gracefully but with a great deal of control."

That control relaxed almost enough to allow him to smile--almost. "I wasn't aware you'd noticed."

"You're the only observant one." She went around to sit behind her desk and moved several items he'd placed there an inch or so to one side.

He adjusted the blinds, stepping back to avoid a shower of dust from the slats as they tilted, then warned, "Leave these just like this."

"Yes, sir." She offered him a mock salute. "You give orders very well. Did you get to do much of that in the Army?"

The dialogue reveals what the hero has done for a living as a retired Army master sergeant, and cleverly incorporates a bit of description. Hero and heroine are star-crossed lovers who parted badly once upon a time and have now been reunited by danger, which is hinted at here, in the dialogue that also touches on their situation, emotions, and conflicts very effectively.

Start your story with dialogue. An old, very effective (and infrequently used) trick of the writer's trade is to snag a reader with a fascinating morsel of dialogue at the very beginning of a story. You can't lose. You begin with immediate action and conflict, and the reader is brought into the scene from that very first sentence. Look at these examples and judge for yourself. I'd be shocked if you didn't want to read more of each:

"Why are you writing a stupid parking ticket when there are killers running around loose?"

--Badge of Honor, by Justine Davis

***

He looks like a walking corpse,Xizor thought.

--Shadows of the Empire, by Steve Perry

***

"Death," the proprietor said clearly, showing the stone.

--On a Pale Horse, by Piers Anthony

***

"I had the dream again last night."

--The Seventh Night, by Amanda Stevens

***

"I want to meet my dad."

--Daniel's Gift, by Barbara Freethy

***

"Ray Bans, a five o'clock shadow, and a black leather jacket."

--Private Dancer, by Suzanne Forster

Vary each character's dialogue. How do you make your characters sound different? By making a conscious effort to do so. Make a list of your important characters. If you know their personalities, you'll have a good idea about certain things they would and wouldn't say, and ways they would and wouldn't say them. Are they prone to the vernacular--in other words, do they use street language? I know most writers have some kind of aversion to writing slang of any kind, but they're not doing justice to their characters if they don't take into account that many people do use slang--often, and as a habit and a choice.

Or do characters "sound" more like English professors? And, again, this shouldn't be the writer's choice. Some writers use dialogue that makes all their characters sound like English professors, and the dialogue becomes monotonous because it's not varied from character to character. That's not good or even effective writing.

Do characters use dialogue somewhere between slang and uptight English professor? Do characters use a lot of internal dialogue? If you don't know the answers to these questions, spend more time on this in the editing and polishing stage.

Try creating dialogue worksheets for all your main characters to keep track of their unique dialogue idiosyncrasies. Sometimes dialogue comes easily and you won't need to map out or think about how a certain character would talk. Other times, you'll have to sit down and map out specific words or phrases certain characters would use. Create tags or mannerisms for some of them. Once you've figured out who says what and how she'll say it, go through your book from start to finish and mold her dialogue to the specifics you've mapped out for her.

Dialogue can be turned into a catalyst for a dynamic story during your editing and polishing.

Next week, I'll present an editing and polishing tip sheet for introspection.

Happy writing!

Karen S. Wiesner is the author of Cohesive Story Building, Volume 2 of the 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection

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Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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