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The Red Pen: Editing Dialogue

We're delighted to have Publishing Director and author Moira Forsyth on the blog today with the second in a series of blog posts featuring advice for writers. We are not currently open to unsolicited submissions, but the tips in The Red Pen blog series will help you ensure that when we do reopen in June, your book will be in the best possible shape. Find out more about our submissions window on our submissions page.

This is not an article telling you how to write convincing dialogue. It’s about editing that dialogue to make it work as well as it can in the context of your story or novel. When you go over your work, here are some aspects of your dialogue to think about.

First, the mechanics. You can’t do better than to have in the back of your mind Elmore Leonard’s numbers 3 and 4 from his ’10 Rules of Good Writing’.

3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’… he admonished gravely.

You might think this is extreme, but it provides a good corrective to the prose that gives every speaker and every speech a different verb and accompanying adverb.

‘That’s nonsense!’ he exclaimed angrily.

‘What next?’ she asked wearily.

Asked is fine, I think, as are cried, yelled, whispered or murmured. All those have their place if used sparingly. But not ejaculated (ever!) and probably not announced, sighed, wept, fumed, queried, moaned, equivocated, demurred – I could go on, but you get the idea.

It’s a great relief to realise ‘said’ is fine and can be repeated!

Surprisingly often, however, you don’t need that either. Make the narrative around the dialogue do the work instead. There is one rule: the reader should know who is speaking. Who hasn’t counted back lines of dialogue trying to work out who said something in a dialogue-heavy novel? However, there are plenty of ways to make this work, without constantly repeating ‘said’.

For example:

‘Why is Daddy shouting?’

‘He’s not, it’s all right. Go back to bed.’

‘He is, Mummy!’ Esther looked disapproving. ‘You was as well.’

‘Were,’ said Janet. ‘You were.’

Esther looked confused, as well she might.

‘Never mind, come on, I’ll tuck you in.’

Louise was sitting up in bed drawing on a toy blackboard. Chalk had transferred itself to the sheet and Louise’s hands and face. Patiently, Janet cleaned her up, removed the tempting toys to her own bedroom, and tucked both children in.

‘Are we having the party?’ Esther asked.

‘Yes, tomorrow afternoon.’


‘Jelly?’ Louise asked.

‘And ice cream and cake.’

‘Hurray!’ they cried.

‘Hush. Go to sleep.’

If you’re reading the novel, you know by this point that Janet is the mother of two small girls, Esther and Louise. Who is speaking should be clear throughout the passage, but the he said/she said indicators have been kept to a minimum.

‘Stage Business’: If there’s a lot of dialogue, authors often feel they have to break it up with descriptions of what people are doing as they have their conversation. This leads to much tea and coffee drinking….

‘Are you coming to the meeting?’ Jessica asked as she raised her mug of coffee.

He took a sip of his tea. ‘Yes, I think so,’ Mike said. He set his cup down again. ‘What about you?’

Jessica sipped thoughtfully. ‘I’m a bit worried about Stan shouting me down again.’

‘I’ll deal with him if he does,’ Mike exclaimed furiously, banging his cup on the table said.

This is a fairly silly bit of dialogue (invented by me for this purpose), but it illustrates the point. If there are only two speakers, you can probably also do without ‘Mike said’.

Of course, this become technically more challenging when there are more than two speakers: here you will need more frequent indicators of who is speaking, but you can still do without he said/she said/they said in many instances.

For example (You would already know Frances is the mother of Jack and Andrew, teenage boys, and Kate is her niece, staying with them temporarily):

‘What’s up?’ Jack said as his mother laid down the receiver.

‘Kate’s upset about her mother,’ Frances said.

Andrew joined them in the hall ‘Send McGhee in. He gets on with women. They like him.’

‘He’s a nice lad.’

Andrew snorted. ‘I’ll tell him you said that.’

‘So what’s happening?’ Jack asked.

‘She’s staying on for a while. Not indefinitely of course. She’s not our responsibility.’

‘Isn’t she?’

‘Let’s leave her in peace for now. I’ll talk to her tomorrow.’

‘You’re taking me to Aberdeen tomorrow.’

‘So I am – I completely forgot. I wonder if it’s wise to leave her with Andrew.’

Andrew was indignant. ‘I’m perfectly capable. I’ll force her to listen to some heavy metal – teach her to appreciate good music. Buy her a beer. Pity County’s not playing at home tomorrow, I could take her to the game.’ He sauntered out, pleased with his own wit.

Editing isn’t only about taking things out – though a good deal of it is – but being clear about what you need leaves you free to leave out a lot of tedious stuff that doesn’t advance the action, tell us about character, fill in background or create atmosphere. If it doesn’t do any of these things, and it doesn’t give vital information, what is it doing there? That, in the end, is always the question to ask yourself.

There’s a temptation to describe how characters are reacting to each other. In life, we don’t do nearly as much nodding and shaking of heads as people seem to do in – some – fiction! If a character says ‘Yes, all right’ you don’t have to write:

She nodded. ‘Yes, all right.’

If you have built your characters well and drawn your readers into the action, you don’t have to spell out how they feel or react. The reader will know, if James says to Sheila, Sorry, no, I won’t be there, whether Sheila is relieved or devastated. Sometimes leaving that silence is more effective than describing her joy or dismay with gasps, sighs, leaping up etc.

Beware also of having your characters call each other by name too often, or give each other quantities of factual information. This is what I think of as the radio play syndrome. If we can’t see what’s going on, the playwright must make clear who is speaking and get basic facts across quickly to establish a situation. It’s usually done better than this!

‘Hi there, Justin, is that your little boy in the push-chair?’

‘Yes, Cynthia, he’s my youngest, Charlie. The other two are at school now, thankfully – Shona’s five and Gregor’s nearly eight.’

Editing your dialogue therefore is often a matter of pruning it, leaving only what the reader needs, but making sure you don’t strip out anything in the speech itself that reveals character, is idiosyncratic to the speaker or reveals something vital to the plot.

Although you will want your dialogue to sound natural – unless perhaps it’s being spoken by a robot or a non-human creature – what you cannot do without making it also tedious is replicate exactly how people speak. Listen to an unedited recording of two people talking, or listen carefully during meetings, or eavesdrop on others’ conversation (of course, as a writer, you’re doing this all the time!). There’s a lot of umming and ahhing, hesitation, unfinished sentences, sentences that go nowhere or are broken off or interrupted. Most of that has to be left out of written dialogue.

However, people don’t all speak in the same way. Some are naturally diffident and may hesitate more than others; some are fluent and verbose, running on without apparently expecting a reply. You will know best how each of your characters ought to sound. This brings me to dialect.

Not everyone can write Trainspotting.

Be cautious about dialect because if you get it wrong, it’s much worse than not including it at all. Try to replicate the syntax and cadences of idiomatic and dialect speech: rely on that more than on spelling phonetically or using apostrophes to indicate missing letters. This doesn’t in the least mean not using dialect – it can add so much saltiness and flavour to a story. But be wary of it, and make sure it’s not too hard for the reader to decipher, especially if you want to keep up a brisk pace in the action.

Finally, don’t be afraid to use dialogue. Well done, it’s a delight to read and enhances the narrative, bringing people to life and adding humour, pathos, drama, suspense – whatever you want it to do.

Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth