In conversation, most of our understanding comes from actions, facial expressions, posture, and tone of voice. Less than 30 percent comes from the words themselves. People may speak with sincerity or sarcasm, with a frown, smile, or smirk. They speak loudly or in a whisper, sitting on the edge of their chairs, leaning forward or leaning back, their arms folded. They might nothing, letting their expressions and motions do the talking.
- Strengthen Your Dialogue with Action.
Since perception in real life comes from body language more than spoken words, you shouldn’t depend on dialogue to tell your story. Include the important details of action, expression, and tone of voice.
Here’s a boring exchange between a mother and father:
“Jason quit his job yesterday,” Susan said.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Bill said. “What’s he going to do now?”
As you write, ask yourself, How did Mom look when spoke to her husband? What was her tone of voice? Was she smiling or did she bite her lip? Other than his words, how did Dad react? Answers to such questions will give you details that give the dialogue meaning. For information on body language, Click Here.
Here’s a better exchange concerning Jason:
Susan put her fork down, hesitating, unsure where to start. “Jason quit his job yesterday.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Bill slammed his cup on the table, showing no concern for the spilled coffee. “What’s he going to do now?”
In the last example, readers may not yet know much about the situation, but they want to know because they have a good idea how the parents feel.
- Avoid Unnecessary Tags.
Did you notice the absence of “said” in the last example? When the actions and body language identify the speaker, the “he said” or “she said” isn’t needed.
- “I’ll have and answer for you by tomorrow,” he said. He rubbed his bald head. (Leave out the “he said” and put a period after “tomorrow.”)
- “Excuse me, would you help me find room 203E?” I asked, trying tried to sound casual. (The question mark defines a question, so “I asked” is obvious.”)
- “Bye, Momma,” he said, slamming the kitchen door. “Bye, Momma.” He slammed the kitchen door.
- Tapping his Bible, Pastor Dominic said, “We are much too comfortable in our ways.” Pastor Dominic tapped his Bible. “We are much too comfortable in our ways.”
- Who Is Talking?
Readers don’t want to play “hide and seek.” When the dialogue is lengthy or you are introducing a new character, identify the speaker near the beginning of the dialogue, not the end. Otherwise, readers must listen to the entire speech before they can connect the words with a person.
- “What is it you want?” she said to him, leaning over the rail. She leaned over the rail. “What is it you want?” (Leaning over the rail would naturally come before the words were spoken.)
- “In this rain?” He grabbed her arm. “It will take an hour to find him.” He grabbed her arm.
- “You look beautiful.” He reached for her hand. “You look beautiful.” (Which came first, the reach or the words? Put the words first if the action afterward fits the scene.)
- “Are you sure that’s really what you want to do? I could give you a few pointers,” John said. “Are you sure,” John said, “that’s really what you want to do? I could give you a few pointers.”
- Redundant Name-Calling
Except for introductions and rare cases of emphasis, don’t have characters call one another by name. In conversation, people don’t normally do that. Never call a name in dialogue solely to clarify who is talking.
- Unique Voice
No two people sound exactly alike, nor do they use the same words. Therefore, be careful to make dialogue and actions unique and consistent for each character. Otherwise, readers will see the author’s personality, not only in the narrative but also in actions and dialogue.
“Sometimes I think I should have been a lawyer,” she said. “Sometimes I think about working as a stock broker,” he said. (How could that information be preserved but have the feel of different characters? Here’s one way: “I should have been a lawyer,” she said. “Not me,” he said. “I’d be a stock broker, get rich, and tell lawyer jokes.”)
- Burdensome Attributions
A simple said will do. Don’t think you need other words for variety. Instead of variety, you create confusion. Occasionally, you may want to say “he whispered” or “she shouted,” but use them sparingly. Entirely avoid verbs that aren’t a means of speaking the words. People don’t admit, direct, laugh, protest, chortle, sigh, stammer, encourage, venture, or gulp their sentences. (The list is endless. You’ll see them in print, but they are still a sign of weak writing.)
The said word is like the articles a, an, and the, or the pronouns he, she, and it. Use them as many times as needed, without fear of redundancy. Also, don’t burden the attribution with frequent adverbs or information that could be put in a stand-alone sentence.
- “No, you won’t,” I demanded, grabbing his sleeve. “No, you won’t.” I grabbed his sleeve. (Since “no, you won’t” is demanding, it’s redundant to say “I demanded.”)
- “What’s wrong with a pink shirt?” he asked curiously as he considered another color from the closet and couldn’t decide on tan or gray. He wondered if his wife would prefer tan or gray.
- “While they’re playing,” she continued said, “we can help the folks work.”
- “I, I just need some lunch money right quick,” Anthony stammered said. (We already have the stammer in the dialog, which is better.)
- “I’m not saying anything about the sex of the baby,” he chuckled said.
- “But sir, my men are out there,” the captain protested said. (Since the protest was stated, it’s redundant to use protested in the attribution.)
- “We must all keep swimming,” the teacher encouraged said. (The dialogue contains the encouragement, so it’s redundant to say the teacher encouraged.)
- “I’ll never do that again,” she vowed as she again.” She slowed her pace. (It’s redundant to hear the vow in the dialogue and have the attribution say she vowed.)
- “And what about the wine coolers?” she ventured asked.
- “Then we will see,” Sythio directed toward said to Jaslei.
- “I took some keys from school,” Ben admitted said.