Jun 17 2011
1. Do the characters have distinct voices? Voice can be influenced by diction and syntax, the sorts of details they’d notice and/or mention, personality, how educated they sound, accents, etc. If the characters sound distinct, readers should usually be able to tell who is saying what even if you cut out most of the dialogue tags (like “John yelled” and “Mary said”).
2. Are characters talking naturally, rather than just narrating for the benefit of readers? One red flag here is that the characters are recapping what they already know (“As you know, Bob…”). If characters talk about things they already know, you can use the conversation to develop some new angle, like what they’re doing moving forward. Make sure that your characters have a reason of their own to talk–if they’re talking about something because you want them to, it will probably feel stilted.
3. Please don’t have characters incessantly address each other by name. That’s annoying, Greg. People don’t talk like that, Greg. If the characters are well-voiced and/or have distinct goals, it should usually be obvious who’s delivering each line without such addresses. If not, adding a dialogue tag like “Mary said” is usually less annoying than adding an address. (I wouldn’t recommend using one every line, though).
4. Does all of the dialogue develop a character and/or advance the plot? Please stay away from chatting, idle chatter that doesn’t go anywhere. Chatting tends to waste space and stall the plot. For example, it’d probably be boring for characters to talk about the weather unless you’re, say, trying to foreshadow an impending hurricane.
4.1. Are the characters trying to accomplish anything? If the characters are just idly talking without any particular goal, I think that’s a red flag that the characters are chatting. Give the characters objectives that really matter to them. For example, if a detective is trying to figure out whether Jim is the murderer and Jim is trying to allay the detective’s concerns, it’d be really surprising if the conversation weren’t interesting.
5. Have you handled your dialogue tags well? Here are some common problems that can arise with dialogue tags.
- Don’t use unnecessary tags. For example, “I’ll never leave you,” he promised uses an unnecessary “he promised.” Readers can easily tell this is a promise, so you don’t need to beat them over the head with it.
- Please don’t load up on exotic substitutes for “said” that don’t add anything. I wouldn’t recommend using an exotic substitute for “John said” unless the substitute word provides some information to readers that they wouldn’t otherwise have. For more details on how to use substitutes for “said” effectively, please see this article.