Good dialogue is critical to a book’s success. During my thirty-five-years as a nonfiction and fiction writer, I’ve learned a good deal about this topic, mostly from editors and members of my superb critique group. Here are some problems I used to have, but don’t have any longer—or not too much, anyway!
1. Effective use of dialect can indicate a person’s educational, ethnic, or geographic background, but its overuse can turn off your reader fast—just have a look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped for an example of deadly dialect. http://bit.ly/1PzlZEz Sprinkle dialect into your dialogue as you would seasoning in soup—a little goes a long way.
Consider the speaker’s age, gender, social background, education level, geographical region, and particular quirks (like stuttering, saying “gee,” swearing, or babbling on) when writing your dialogue. Using bad grammar, slang, and words like “gonna” or “wanna” can reveal a lot about your character. Here’s a London street urchin:
The boy tugged the notebooks out of my arms. “Dover Street Station, then, would be best, miss, gettin’ off the tube at St. John’s Woods. I’ll go along with you—you’ll be needin’ help with the liftin’. Looks like rain, miss. Good thing you brought your brolly.”
2. Use dialogue tags to indicate who is speaking only if it is not clear from the context. Ask yourself if every dialogue tag is really necessary. Notice below how the phrase about nibbling on fingernails reminds the reader who is talking, while it tells something about the speaker and inserts a visual element into the hospital scene.
“You were walking along the Quai de la Tournelle, on the Left Bank,” said the policeman. “What were you doing there?”
“I don’t know.”
“It is some distance from your hotel. We questioned all the taxis. No one remembers taking you to the Quartier Latin. You walked, perhaps, or met a friend?”
“I d-don’t remember.”
“It was almost ten o’clock. Still some light this time of year. You were returning to your hotel, perhaps? Do you remember your hotel?”
“It was L’Hotel de Crillon. A very fine hotel. Do you remember your room?”
“No. I’m sorry.” I began nibbling on my fingernails.
3. Beginning writers often feel the need to use a different descriptive verb for every line of dialogue. Using words like exclaimed, gasped, screamed, hypothesized, reasoned, argued, pondered, and mouthed can distract from the conversation. The best dialogue tag is usually “said.”
“Our house just went on the market,” said Joan.
Other verbs that can be used when the occasion warrants:
“The house is on fire!” shouted Amy.
“I got laid off too,” added Sam.
“What do you mean, coming over here tonight?” demanded Frank.
“How are you feeling today?” asked Pete.
“I’m not coming,” he replied.
But avoid using dialogue tags with verbs like “she grinned” or “he smiled.” We can’t grin or smile words.
Not: “The merry-go-round was fun,” Becky smiled.
Better: “The merry-go-round was fun.” Becky smiled at her mother.
4. Cut to the chase. Avoid the obvious; it’s boring. The following may well be an accurate portrayal of a real conversation, but it is also deadly dull.
“Hello, Judy. This is Sylvia.”
“Oh, hi, Sylvia. How are you?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“Doing well, thanks, now that the rain has stopped.”
“Yes, it’s lovely weather we’re having today, isn’t it?”
“Sure is. I’m heading out shortly. What’s up?”
“I was just wondering if you’d seen William recently?”
Better: “Judy, this is Sylvia. Have you seen William recently?”
5. Dashes or ellipses are useful in indicating hesitation or confusion, but again, don’t overdo it.
“Well . . . I can’t . . . that is, I wish you’d told me sooner.”
“Good Lord, you’re not at all like—”
And after you have polished your dialogue to its highest shine, read it aloud. The ear is often a better judge than the eye.