1. Make it realistic but not too realistic.
Dialogue needs to ring true, but completely realistic dialogue can be trying to read, so avoid most of the pauses, repetitive lines, sentences trailing off, rambling, wordiness, and interruptions. Be sure to use contractions so it doesn’t sound stilted.
In this example, a wordy line is pared down.
“I am going to have to go to the store later today.”
Better: “I have to go to the store.”
2. Use the speaker tag “said” and use it without adverbs.
Not everyone agrees with this guideline, but author Elmore Leonard is a firm believer. He says, “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled,’ ‘gasped,’ ‘cautioned,’ ‘lied.’”
And: “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”
3. Avoid mentioning characters’ names.
Repeating characters’ names in dialogue sounds unnatural because most people don’t continually say the name of the person they’re talking to, especially when there are only two people conversing.
Take this example.
“Catherine, what did you find at the antique store?” Ruth said.
“An old typewriter,” Catherine said. “Do you type, Ruth?”
“Yes, I do, Catherine.”
4. Eliminate redundancies.
Though redundancies might be realistic at times, they tend to slow down the dialogue.
In the first example, the character states the same thing twice. In the last two examples, the dialogue in combination with the speaker tag/action is redundant.
“I’m not feeling well,” she said. “I’m sick.”
“Sorry,” he apologized.
She nodded. “Yes.”
5. Use actions sparingly.
Some writers fall into the trap of inserting actions into nearly every paragraph of dialogue. This results in characters who can’t seem to sit still because they’re constantly nodding, crossing their arms, pointing, shaking their heads, rolling their eyes, and shrugging.
Hope these tips help make your dialogue shine.
Elmore Leonard, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (New York, NY; HarperCollins, 2001), 23, 29.