I’ve been reading a lot lately—both published stories and unpublished ones.  I have come to the conclusion that besides careless grammatical mistakes, nothing bothers me more than clunky dialogue.

Need some tips of improving your dialogue?  A couple of thoughts…

  • PLEASE, for the love of God, read your dialogue out loud!  I can always tell when writers haven’t done this—it’s painfully obvious.  Reading aloud will help you pick up on repeated words that your eyes might skip because you’ve been reading and rereading your draft.  It will also help you hear what sounds wooden or unnatural.  When you’re in the middle of a conversation, do you use your friend’s name?  Do you say, “I was thinking about moving to Maui and working as a tattoo artist, Kim”?  Or do you skip her name, knowing that she’s already listening to you?
  • Don’t use dialogue simply for exposition.  This one pains me greatly.  “Say, when was the last time I saw you?  Oh, yeah—it must’ve been at my father’s funeral a couple of months ago, when my brother showed up drunk and wrecked the whole thing.  I haven’t talked to him since then.  Anyway, how are you?”  Unless you’re going to use that reminiscence as a springboard to another part of your story, skip this step.  However, that brings me to…
  • Use your dialogue for more than one purpose.  Besides revealing something about the person speaking and to whom they’re speaking, use your dialogue to move your story forward, whether through revealing or developing something about your character, or creating tension between two characters, which can help your story evolve.
  • Remember that what your characters say is a way of revealing who they are.  Use this to your advantage!  If she’s a twenty-something college dropout who has never finished what she’s begun, she could continue with what she’d begun above: “Hey, I was thinking about moving to Maui and working as a tattoo artist.  Or maybe I’ll just hang out here and keep working at the coffee shop.  You know, it’s so hard to pick up and move and to find an apprenticeship, and the tips I’m making are OK.”
  • There’s a great debate about using tags—“she said” or some version of that.  Many writers want to keep  tags to those two words.  No “she pronounced,” no “she explained,” no “she proclaimed.”  I agree with this one in most cases.  “Said” is unobtrusive.  You won’t pull your readers out of the story by using something fancy or contrived.
  • Please don’t use adverbs along with your tags.  “She whispered quietly” is one I’ve seen a lot.  Um, duh!  If she’s whispering, your readers will expect that she’s not doing it loudly.
  • Use description along with your dialogue.  Make your character move about so your readers can see your setting, or so they can learn something more about her—the way she twirls her hair when she’s nervous, or how she ignores the stack of dishes next to the sink.
  • Cut out dialogue that merely moves the story along without doing anything else.  “You were saying…?” is one example.  Make sure every word counts.

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