We all know great dialogue when we read it—and the best dialogue seems effortless. But good dialogue takes work, sometimes needing multiple edits and thinking it over and totally revising a scene. It also takes a few key ingredients. There are a few things that can help you punch your dialogue into shape—and that means editing out these problems.
1) Chit-chat. We get plenty of this in real life. The “Hi, how are you?” stuff is boring in fiction. You want dialogue that’s better than real life—that means bigger, too. You need to dramatize without going over the top to melodrama. You want the dialogue to be sharp—meaning you may need to really look at the words coming out of your characters’ mouths and take an edit just to punch the dialogue.
2) Poor Punctuation. Nothing will throw a reader out of a story faster than poor technique. Commas go inside quote marks and are used when the tag is part of the same sentence (action modifies the dialogue). He said, “I know how to use a comma.” And not: He said. “I know how to use a comma.” Put in a period when the action is its own sentence. He gave a sigh. “I wish more folks knew how to use commas.” And not: He gave a sigh, “I wish more folks knew how to use commas.” Cut the double punctuation, too!? It’s the mark of a writer who is still learning. And get a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style so you know exactly how to write dialogue and internal dialogue so the reader gets into the story instead of being stopped by clumsy writing techniques.
3) Weird Paragraph Breaks. This is related to poor punctuation. Keep the action of a speaker with that person’s dialogue—use paragraph breaks when starting a new topic. In other words, you want your paragraphs to flow, as in:
In a deliberate move, like slipping under a punch, Josh fixed his stare on Marion, wet his lips and asked, “Marion? As in librarian?”
Marion’s mouth flattened and he lifted the Beretta higher. “Hey—gun here, Mr. Charming.”
Josh didn’t look cowed by the threat, but that might have been due to the cool shades. “I thought you were interested in selling my skills, not shooting me.”
“My line of work, it’s like a tightrope walker. You have to stay lean and flexible.”
“That’s why you keep that name? You’re—?”
Marion didn’t look as if he’d say more, but Felix glanced at Josh. “He admires the late John Wayne, a man birthed with greatness and under such a name.”
4) Awkward Tags. Don’t trip a reader with awkward tags that clunk. Things like “he shouted miserably” and “she wailed” need cutting. This is a sure sign you’re trying to prop up weak dialogue with tags that hit the reader over the head. Make the dialogue stronger instead. Or give your characters stronger actions that contrast and highlight the dialogue. Show your characters expressing emotion through their words and their actions. Also, do remember that if you have three women in a conversation “she” is not going to be a clear pronoun, so use proper names. (Same goes for multiple of any gender.) If you only have two people speaking you need fewer tags, so you can use just action to better show what a character is feeling.
5) Obvious Clunkers. The worst offender here is dialogue that is there just for backstory or exposition. “Do you remember when we were ten and mom came after us with a butcher knife?” Why is this character saying this? Why bring up an obvious past? Is there a point to be made or are you (the author) looking to slip in backstory? Do you have the bad guy explaining her motivation in a monologue? Do you have the good guy explains the clever plot just to get it on the page (without any motivation for why he’s saying all this)? Are you forcing your characters to say things because the plot demands it? Instead of this, think about using dialogue to let your characters express emotion. Let your characters avoid answering questions, let them change topics, and let them meander. Let your characters be a little more real and not just be puppets pushed into saying things because the plot demands it.
6) Accents, Ye Olde English, and the Wrong Slang. While great dialogue has a flavor of an individual, too much of this can come across with as bad a taste as over-salted soup. One too many “mayhaps” can throw a reader right out of a story. Same goes for a cliché Scottish accent. When in doubt, go for telling the reader, “She had a lovely Scottish burr.” And leave it at that. Do your research for local dialect and slang but use it to just give a little flavor. A guy from Georgia will swear differently from a Jersey girl, and you want to nail this. You also want your slang to fit both the era and the person. A military man from 1940 will talk different than a lady from 1800. If you get that wrong, readers might not know what exactly is wrong, but they also might not believe your characters or your story. So look up words and phrases—etymology is your friend.
7) Overdone Internal Dialogue. Remember to give great lines to your characters to say and not just to think. Internal dialogue can be a wonderful thing. Writers like Mary Balogh are masters at it. But too much thinking can slow your story’s pace, particularly if a character thinks and thinks and thinks about the same thing. Know the type of story you’re writing and what works best for your characters and your story.