There’s an art to dialogue, a flow to fictional speech any aspiring author will have to learn to master. Part of that comes from being creative and understanding how dialogue relates to your story and your characters. Part of it comes simply from practicing, writing more stories and more scenes to flex your writing muscles and improve. But part of it is also technical, and there are several small things any author can do to make the prose surrounding their dialogue more fluid.
1.) Never Use a Verb Other Than “Said” to Carry Dialogue
This is one of the late, great Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, and it’s an easy way to clean up your dialogue. “Said” is a sort of placeholder verb people skim over while reading dialogue, a word that’s necessary but not overly exciting. Newer authors will sometimes try to replace “said” with other words because they think using it repetitively will bore the reader, but this isn’t really the case. Readers won’t be bored by “said” but they may be jarred out of a story if they have to read through words like “extolled” or “pontificated” in its place. These sorts of words draw attention to themselves, distracting from the narrative flow. Worse, a reader might not know what they mean and have to stop to look them up.
This isn’t to say that you absolutely only have to use “said” as your go to verb in dialogue. Words like “whispered” or “yelled” are examples of descriptive, non-distracting replacements. The main point is that dialogue tags are not the place to get overly creative in your prose.
2.) Drop Dialogue Tags Sometimes
Though “said” is a skimmed-over word, dropping dialogue tags can make your dialogue scenes even more fluid for your readers. Just make sure it is still clear who is speaking. Readers will get frustrated if they have to re-read a passage multiple times because something isn’t clear.
3.) Don’t Modify “Said” With Adverbs
Don’t use adverbs after your dialogue tags, I’m telling you, pointedly. It’s lazy writing. It will take more words, but it’s much better to describe a character’s actions or facial expressions to get the same point across. Or let the dialogue speak for itself and trust your readers to be able to pick up on the mood.
4.) Avoid Distracting Punctuation
Dashes, ellipses, and other punctuational tools can add flavor to dialogue…but don’t overuse them. It can come off as contrived — or at least that’s my opinion on the matter — and distract from the dialogue itself, which should be the most important th-th-thing.
5.) Don’t Overuse Accents or Slang
My lump of ice for ya on slang and accents is to not let ’em clutter ye dialogue. At the end of the day, your reader should be able to understand what’s being said, and in a book you don’t have the advantage of subtitles to clarify things. Use accents and slang to flavor your words, and don’t let it become too overbearing. Remember, you can also just tell your reader that your character has a specific type of accent, if you need to.
There are certainly other things to consider when writing dialogue than what I’ve listed here, but adhering to these techniques is an easy way to improve your writing that doesn’t require a lot of creativity or practice. Personally, I follow these as much as possible. To you other authors out there, do you do the same? And are there any other similar pieces of advice that I’ve overlooked? Let me know down in the comments, or feel free to hit me up on social media.