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On the Nose: Editing for Natural (But Refined) Dialogue

When you sit down for each editing pass on your manuscript’s first draft, you’re going to be working your way through a series of elements (if you’re taking our advice, that is).

And one of the elements that demand the utmost scrutiny and determination in editing is dialogue.

In this article, we’ll be approaching dialogue from the perspective of the editor – what you should keep in mind when reading over your work and figuring out whether or not the dialogue truly works.

First, it can’t be overstated just how important dialogue is to your story. It’s one of the primary methods of interaction between characters; it drives attitude, enables and further conflict, mirrors personal development, and so much more. Given its importance, it’s imperative to understand that it absolutely cannot be fluff.

That’s why, when editing, you have to be ruthless with dialogue. The vast majority – if not all – of the conversations should in service to the story, always taking things forward. In the first instance, look out for stretches of dialogue where you aren’t doing this. Sure, that breakfast table conversation might have felt as though it was a great method of setting up an initial sense of normality before your inciting incident takes place… but is it really?

If the characters are talking about simple nonsense that has no relevance to your story, it would be worth marking the conversation for removal or review. It should be possible to re-work the dialogue so it delivers the same sensation to the reader, but also speaks to deeper things – perhaps foreshadowing later events, or leading a short investigation into core character traits.

But this leads on to another common malady of dialogue: being far too on-the-nose.

In natural, everyday speech, we don’t often say what we’re really thinking. Simply put: the mouth is rarely a direct conduit for the brain.

Instead, we allude, suggest – we try to persuade and negotiate, often to clumsy effect, when interacting verbally with others. There’s a difference there between negotiation and deceit, but we don’t tend to spill all the fine details of our thoughts or intentions within the heat of the moment.

Imagine a scene where three characters are running across a battlefield. Bullets, laser fire, arrows, flaming projectiles – whatever you wish to imagine – are raining down from above.

As they run, one character spots a large rock that could offer shelter and vantage. She quickly formulates a plan in her mind.

Does she:

A) Point to the rock and shout “There! Get to that rock!” to the others?


B) Point at the rock and shout “There! Get to that rock! It’ll give us cover so we can figure a way out!”

Option A feels more natural by virtue of its brevity – under stress and under threat, there’s no time for explanation. But it’s also more successful in a narrative sense because it doesn’t give the reader further information about what the plan is once our trio reaches the rock. This character may indeed know exactly what she plans to do next, but the reader doesn’t have to be privy to that information right away. It’s better to pull back a little and let the reader reach for that thread. What does this character have in mind? What’s going on in her head now that a light bulb has apparently popped on?

We’ll find out when we get there.

One thing you’ll also notice from that example is that there’s a physical element to what’s being said. Introducing body language is an ideal way to avoid the trap of overusing adverbs in your dialogue tags – telling the reader that someone says something “angrily” or “despondently.”

People aren’t just talking heads, so make sure to address their body language along with the words they say, and you’ll paint a much more vivid and involving picture for your reader. Body language is also useful if you find yourself editing stretches of dialogue that feel too long. The interactions and information within the dialogue may be essential to the story – and perfectly well written in terms of the inter-character chatter – but it just runs on for too long in one big block.

To get around this, try breaking up these passages with physical beats – the speaker setting something down or gesturing in some manner, for example. This can work wonders by stemming the tide of speech, and create a more natural, pleasant rhythm for the passage.

But beyond the mouth, remember to tap into the thoughts of the character… and ask yourself: are you building a direct link between the brain and the mouth? If you feel like you are, chances are you’re indulging in too much exposition – telling, not showing – and need to dial back on just how much you’re serving up directly through dialogue.

As you may have heard a million times before, you should read your dialogue aloud to see if it flows naturally from your mouth. If you stumble over words, or everything feels too robotic, it’s time for a rewrite. It also helps to get into character when you’re reading your dialogue – taking on the affectations and attitude of each character to see if it’s also natural coming from their mouth as well. This way, you can also easily tell if your characters clearly have their own voices and aren’t blending together – or, worse, failing to differentiate themselves from your narrative voice.

Don’t go too far in your quest for realism, though! Remember, natural speech is often rambling, bumbling, and imprecise – but trying to perfectly mimic the speech of the average person will leave your story feeling equally scattershot. There’s a fine balance to be struck when you’re trying to harness the vagaries of human verbal interaction while still keeping your prose fluid and involving.

Editing dialogue can be tough, but hopefully keeping the points given here in mind will help you to refine this all-important aspect of your novel. Take your editing efforts conversation by conversation, think honestly about the effect (or lack thereof) that each one has within your story, and your story will be all the stronger for it.


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