An Exercise to Improve Dialogue
By Jen Jandavs-Hedlin
One of the toughest areas of novel writing to master is the dialogue. I have read many novels that have perfectly sculpted prose swirling across the page and then all of the momentum abruptly comes to a halt when the characters open their mouths.
There are three pitfalls that seem to be the most common: the characters sound like the author, the characters sound like each other, the character’s colloquialisms do not fit the setting.
One of the most effective means to evaluate your dialogue is to read it aloud like a script. Gather together a group of people—one person for each character in the section of the manuscript you are reading—and you can read the narration and dialogue tags personally. (I would recommend having beverages readily available, since everyone will be reading. And snacks could very well provide some extra motivation for people to come!)
When selecting your group, if possible, look for people who match the demographics of the characters, especially for characters that are quite different from yourself. Their mix of perspectives will aid in this process. Ideally, the group should also include people who are comfortable giving constructive criticism. If you fill the room with encouraging people, chances are the feedback will all be positive, regardless of the merit of the dialogue. On the flip side, highly critical people will find areas of improvement in everything, so be prepared! Hopefully you can find a good mix.
Before you begin reading, give the group an overview of the plot up until this point. If you have character profiles written for each character, perfect! Hand those out so everyone can get a sense of your intent for the cast’s personality, and ask the group to keep that in mind as they read.
Now you’re ready for the fun to begin! Read through a good section of text, plan for around 45 minutes of reading. Characters can move beside other characters when they are speaking to them, to really get a good sense of the interpersonal dynamics in the scene. Props, accents, costumes may be an asset or hindrance depending on the group, so do what you think is best with that.
Once the reading is over, encourage everyone to jot a few thoughts down about their character’s dialogue. Some prompting questions may be helpful. Make your own list, or try some of these:
- Is the dialogue for your character in line with their personality outline? Please describe.
- Does the dialogue enhance your picture of who this character is? How so? Or, why not?
- Were there any lines that you felt were not consistent with this character’s personality? (It might be helpful to highlight those lines for further review later.)
- Did your lines of dialogue sound similar to other characters? Which ones?
- Did your lines of dialogue sound similar to the narration? Which ones?
- How could the dialogue be improved? Be as specific as possible.
- What were the common dialogue tags for this character? Were they overused? (As a side, the trend in dialogue tags is moving towards minimalism, read more about that here
- Did the dialogue display a range of emotions for the character?
- Did the dialogue accurately display the character’s motivations in the scene?
- Does the dialogue reveal insight into who this character is?
- Was the dialogue convincing?
- Does the dialogue propel the story forward?
- Does the dialogue throughout the book demonstrate personal growth or change in the character? (This question would involve further reading.)
- Is the dialogue consistent with the character’s:
- Social status
- Period in history
- Other: _______________
- Was the dialogue in this scene(s) consistent with:
- the gravity of the scene
- the mood of other characters
It may be helpful to give your group this list of questions before you start.
I would encourage you to customize this list of questions depending on the known strengths/weakness of your novel, and the specific areas of the dialogue that may need extra work. Some of these questions naturally lead to discussion, while others may lend themselves to participants writing down their answers. (Hopefully you can maximize the amount of feedback you get, while minimizing the time commitment for this group.)
If you’re still wondering if your characters’ personalities are shining through their dialogue, try this quick little test. Select some lines of dialogue that do not naturally give away the character that said them, and see if the group can correctly identify who said it. This is not an easy feat and is sure to bring about some laughs! It could be a fun way to end the evening.
One Final Note
Any time you are asking anyone for feedback, it takes openness and vulnerability on the part of the author, and the reviewer. If you want to weed out any areas of weakness in your novel, this type of exercise can be an effective means of pinpointing areas of improvement. But that does not mean that it won’t be discouraging. There is a good chance that areas of improvement will be discovered, and that’s a good thing. In the long run, I’m sure your characters—and thus your novel—will be all the better for it!
About this Contributor:
Jen Jandavs-Hedlin has worked in the publishing industry for over a decade and is passionate about helping authors to share their stories. She enjoys cooking, reading, writing, and organizing her home into boxes and containers. Jen lives in Winnipeg with her husband, and their canine companion, Montgomery.