One of my biggest pet peeves as an agent reading slush is unrealistic dialogue. This is a huge indicator of skill for better or for worse. For me this is a bigger red flag than any grammatical error and I cringe when dialogue isn’t edited as carefully as the rest of the manuscript (in terms of pace, being concise etc). I will VERY quickly pass on a manuscript if everything else is going well–except dialogue. It’s a more important piece of the puzzle than most writers realize. It’s our link to your characters’ tone, emotion, voice and so many other things. If you want a reader to connect with your characters (which you all do!) dialogue is a huge part of that equation.
So, how can you write better dialogue?
Write the character’s voice, not yours — Debut writers have a tendency to write themselves into their book when it’s not necessary and therefore, they baby the characters a bit instead of treating them separately. There is a divide between you and your characters even if you can’t see the difference when the words flow through your keyboard onto the page.
Don’t strong arm the characters around — It is very obvious when a writer is being a puppet master instead of letting the characters’ dialogue flow naturally. Make sure you don’t try to manipulate your characters because what ends up happening is that the reader can see through it and THEY feel manipulated. You have to trust your reader so you have to create worlds where dialogue flows naturally and makes sense for the plot.
Avoid perfect phrasing and sentences — None of us speak perfectly in real life and your characters shouldn’t either. Have them cut each other off. Let them speak over each other. Allow them to make grammatical errors.
Use dialogue to advance your plot — Don’t let your characters stand around recounting a scene that already happened. We were all there! That’s the quickest way to lose us and waste word count. Instead, keep moving forward. Never let dialogue move backwards. (Use flashbacks to look back.)
Q: What tools do you use to edit and improve your dialogue?