Dialogue is an important part of any story and essential to get right.
Good dialogue can reveal twists, unveil character traits, motivations, change the direction of the story, and give your cliffhangers the perfect bite—I mean, who doesn’t love the final line of a scene ending in a suspenseful piece of dialogue!
While it’s up to you to perfect your dialogue, if you want to ensure it’s working for your words, double-check it with the help of this checklist!
Use your search function to find every instance of quote marks (” or ‘), and as you look at each highlighted quote, check the following…
Spelled Out Emotions
While there’s nothing wrong with telling emotions, if you’re spelling out every single instance, use this check to shortcut your way to finding all that telling and convert some of it to showing.
Telling: “Get out!” Jenny shouted angrily.
Showing: “Get out!” Jenny shook her fists, her cheeks flushing red.
Take a look at your usage of character names. Have you used them too much? Not enough? If it’s not clear who’s speaking, ensure your character names are paired with your dialogue tags.
“What time are we leaving tonight?” Jenny asked.
“I told him we’d be there at nine,” Carla said.
If it’s clear, consider removing the names to cut down on your word count.
Jenny’s gaze followed Carla as she took the seat opposite her. “What time are we leaving tonight?”
“I told him we’d be there at nine,”
I’m sure you’ve heard the theory that “said” is overlooked by readers because their eyes gloss over it, making it the perfect dialogue tag. There’s also the school of thought that you should mix it up and use other tags like “screamed” and “demanded”.
Decide what’s best for your story and use this check to study each tag for the right balance.
Another option for mixing up your dialogue tags is not using one at all.
As you’re checking your dialogue, see if it’s suitable to end a line with an action beat instead, or make sure you have a good ratio of actions beats to dialogue tags.
Dialogue tag: “I’m just joking,” Carla said.
Action beat: “I’m just joking.” Carla fiddled with the ends of her hair, tucking a strand behind her ear.
Lastly, check the punctuation of your dialogue. It’s easy to forget a comma, full stop, question mark, or exclamation point when you’re furiously typing!
While you’re there, make sure you have a full stop when the dialogue precedes action, and a comma when it precedes speaking. And don’t forget that any subject (he, she, they) after a punctuation mark in dialogue should be in lowercase, not uppercase (despite what your spellcheck might try to “correct”).
Comma for speaking tag: “I know you’re lying,” Jenny shouted.
Full stop for action tag: “I know you’re lying.” Jenny smashed the vase.
Missing punctuation: “I know you’re lying” Jenny shouted.
Lowercase subject: “Are you lying?” she asked.
And there you have it! A few easy dialogue checks to tick off while editing that will make the most of your words, and your manuscript stronger!
— K.M. Allan