By Rebecca Laurent
Writing good dialogue is no small task. I don’t imagine that there is any complete checklist that writers can follow that will allow us to craft perfect dialogue every time. There are, however, a few helpful rules of thumb that can help elevate flat dialogue and keep scenes from boring our readers.
Avoid using dialogue tags other than “said”
Trying to spice up writing using tags such as “she cajoled” or “she jerked out” is an easy mistake to make. Though, consider the reader’s experience. These kinds of tags can become very distracting from the actual conversations we’re trying to pull them into. Some might argue that these sorts of tags provide necessary information about a character’s disposition. Still, if those tags are truly bearing all the weight of such a large job, probably some critical content is missing from a character’s description and the wording of their lines.
Actually, use as few dialogue tags as possible.
Don’t get me wrong. Streams of naked dialogue are doom to any story, but that doesn’t mean every line should have a tag attached to it. Mix it up. Instead of “she said,” include a bit of physical description or body language which tells us more about a character’s mood. Such lines can let us know who is speaking just as clearly.
Edit out any conversations where your characters are telling each other about things they both already know.
Theater scrips have made this kind of banal conversation infamous, coining it as maid and butler dialogue. This is when one character says something like, “As you know, the master is out today.” If they already know it, why are they telling them? To readers, such overt attempts to cram in information come across as disingenuous and tend to pull them out of a story. Instead, ensure that your characters all have an appropriate level of motivation for whatever lines you give them.
So much of what makes fantastic dialogue fantastic is often not everything that the characters have said. Rather, it is what they have not said. Just like in real life, people in our stories can be passive-aggressive or say something which contrasts with what they’re thinking. Consider all the delicious possibilities which come with including a point-of-view (POV) character’s thoughts as they decide what to hold back from their conversation partner.