Dialogue can be difficult, but there are some things you can do to make it way better. Here are five things for you to focus on when editing your dialogue. If you do these then your dialogue will be amazing. As with everything, you need make sure the dialogue advances the plot or develops the characters. If it doesn’t do either, or both, then cut it out.

Dialogue Directions

1. Read it out loud
2. Show the emotions
3. Give each character their own voice
4. Use only ‘said’
5. Keep it short

Read it Out Loud

This is how you know that you’ve got the rhythm right. If you can record yourself reading it and listen back. Don’t take any shortcuts here. You need to actually say it out loud, reading in your head doesn’t work. This is good advice for all of your text, but does double duty for dialogue.

Show the Emotions

Good dialogue tells the reader what the character is feeling. Never use attributions to do that. Sometimes though the dialogue itself isn’t enough for this. So show some of the body language through bits of character action as well.

For example, turn ‘Yes!’ He shouted excitedly. into ‘Yes!’ He pumped his fist. The dialogue is the same, but you’ve shown the emotion with the fist pump rather than telling it with an attribution.

Unique voices

All your characters are different. So make them sound different. Think about them and what they have as interests, their level of education and social background. All of these colour what people talk about and the words they choose. This should come out in the dialogue that you write for them.

The way to test it is when you are reading aloud. If you can tell which character is speaking from the dialogue then you’ve got it about right. The true test is when other people can do that.

Only use ‘said’

One of the things that’s really easy to do with first drafts is to get into lazy attributions. You just want to bash the story out and being a proper writer you resist the urge to edit as you do it. This leads to he argued, she said languidly and other similar things.

If you’ve been showing the emotion properly then these crutches don’t add anything and so they need to be removed.

In fact you should lose any attributions you can and the rest should only be ‘character said’. The sole purpose of a dialogue attribution is to make it clear who is speaking. If there are only two characters involved in a back and forth, and you’ve given them both their own distinctive voice, then you can largely dispense with the attributions.

Keep it short

William Shakespeare, a dialogue master
William Shakespeare, a dialogue master

Dialogue works best with a series of short bursts. When you listen to people speak, it is rare for one person to make a Shakespeare style soliloquy. Also you want to break up text with white space to make the dialogue easier to read.

Start each new speaker on their own line, and break if anyone else does anything or you need to switch out of dialogue. This keeps it short.