There are times when, reading dialogue, I both recognize and sympathize with how hard it can be to make it sound right. Conversations can so easily come out stilted and monotone. So I came up with a few tips that can help strengthen passages with dialogue.
1. Adverbs describing speech - get rid of those -ly words.
Example: “Get out of this house,” she said angrily.
Solution: “Get out. Now.” Her arm shook as she pointed to the door.
Or, if you prefer to describe the voice:
“Get out. Now.” The sting in her voice bit deeper than a rattlesnake’s fangs.
2. Don’t show me an emotion or action IN the dialogue and/or action, then tell me.
Example: “You feeling okay? You don’t look so good,” he said, studying his friend.
(since he’s commented on how the guy looks, we already know he’s studied him.)
Solution: “You feeling okay? You don’t look so good.”
Example: At the loud report, he raced to the garage and threw open the door. “What happened?” he asked, concerned.
Solution: Let the dialogue say it all. Leave off that “he asked, concerned”. And “threw open the door” isn’t needed, either. It’s implied when he races to the garage. It’s much stronger and keeps the reader in the action to simply say:
At the loud report, he raced to the garage. “What happened?”
3. Don’t use dialogue tags where they aren’t needed. He said/she said are superfluous most of the time. I’d always been taught that he said/she said are invisible and should be used over more explanatory tags, but often these aren’t needed at all, unless it’s a conversation between more than two people.
Example: “What do you want for dinner?” he asked.
Solution: “What do you want for dinner?”
4. Do use action tags, but not on every line of dialogue. Here’s a brief conversation to show how a quick action tag will do so much more than a dialogue tag:
“What’s for dinner?”
She cocked an eyebrow. “I don’t know. What are you cooking?”
“Hmmm. I guess that means we’re eating out.”
“I like that idea.”
“Yeah, thought you might.” He grinned.
5. And here’s the biggie: Does what you’ve written sound like your character would speak? There are nuances and accents we all try to infuse our characters with, but make certain it works. Read the dialogue out loud, without the tags. Does it sound like they are reading off a card or like natural conversation?
Dialogue is a huge way to show your reader what the character is thinking and to move their interactions forward (or backward, depending on what you have in store for them). So make it real, and make it count.
Laurie Temple is an editor at Champagne Books and writes under the pseudonym Laurie Ryan.