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Spice Up Your Dialogue

by Arlene W. Robinson and Terry Robinson

Q: I submitted my novel to an agent, but it was rejected. The agent said it needed dialogue work to be marketable. How can I make my dialogue better?  (C.D., Duluth, GA)

A: You'd think dialogue would be the easiest part of writing a novel. However, crafting natural, believable dialogue can be a challenge, even for the most experienced writer. Here are a few tips to use when you're editing your characters' dialogue:

  1. Read it out loud. You'll be amazed how many times this can help you catch cumbersome or awkward phrasing. Even better, have someone else read it out loud, and the problem areas will be even more obvious.
  2. Since you're reading aloud anyway, give your dialogue the "breath test." If you start to run out of breath before you finish a sentence, split the passage into two shorter ones, or reword.
  3. Resist the urge to overexplain. For example: "I'm scared," Monica said fearfully." (She already said she's scared; the dialogue itself implies she's fearful, so "fearfully" isn't needed.) In fact, try to avoid almost all occurrences of words ending in "-ly." Since those words are used so often, they actually weaken rather than strengthen your meaning.
  4. If the dialogue passage needs a tagline, "said" is preferred ("he said"/"she said") because it's invisible. The reader tends to skip over the word "said" and concentrates on the dialogue itself—exactly what you want them to do. It's true that another word is sometimes needed, such as "John asked," but make that the exception rather than the rule. Above all, avoid using tags like "she laughed" or "he chuckled," or any other action that it's physically impossible to do while speaking. This helps keep your dialogue real, and gains you respect as a writer.
  5. If you use a tagline, make "said" last. While some writers do occasionally put "said" first—as in "said Jenny"—this is considered weak wording. "Jenny said" is much stronger.
  6. Unless the character has a very formal or stuffy personality, use simple words rather than big words or phrases. Instead of using "at this point in time," use "now"; instead of "in view of the fact that," use "because"; instead of "for the purpose of," use "to."
  7. To give your dialogue a more casual feeling, use contractions—for example, "I can't meet this deadline" instead of "I cannot meet this deadline."
  8. Don't be afraid to occasionally use sentence fragments. We often use them in our conversation, so fragments add realism. For example: "Can't do that," Joe said. "This month's budget won't allow it." (However, there is an exception to this tip: Foreign-born speakers sometimes have formal speech patterns, so you might want to avoid fragments or contractions in their dialogue.)
  9. Put your dialogue on a low-"that" diet. We often use the word "that" when we speak, but if used in written speech, "that" can dull the meaning. Don't let this rule hinder you during your first draft, but when you review your dialogue later, remove every occurrence of "that" you can without losing the meaning of the sentence.
  10. Make sure you have enough dialogue. Readers love dialogue because it helps them to "hear" the story better. So as you're revising your story, look for spots where you can add dialogue.


Reprinted with the permission of Booking Matters ( a literary publication that promotes authors, book clubs, and bookstores.