Clear and Vivid Dialogue

He said…she said… Shouldn’t it be easy to write clean, clear dialogue between two or more characters? But as writers, we want our dialogue to not only be clear, but also to be lively and vivid. We want our dialogue to be fresh and real, to jump off the page with life. However, in pursuit of strong dialogue, we may find ourselves over-indulging in shortcuts that should be used at a minimum.

Shortcut Number One: Substituting another word for “said.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she sneered.

A word like “sneered” or “scoffed” may at first strike us as more vivid than “said,” but these types of dialogue tags are shortcuts that can amount to “telling” instead of “showing.” What specifics about the character’s speech would make you describe it as a sneer or a scoff? Did she roll her eyes? Did she draw out each syllable in a slow, taunting drawl?

Shortcut Number Two: Using an adverb to modify “said.”

“Stay away from her,” she said angrily.

Here’s something we’ve all heard before—avoid adverbs. Use them as sparingly as possible. In my opinion, the advice to avoid adverbs applies especially to dialogue tags. What is conveyed by telling your reader that the character said the words angrily? Did her eyes narrow and her nostrils flair? Did she lunge forward or stomp her feet? What does angrily really mean?

Shortcut Number Three: Using an adjective to describe the speaker’s tone of voice.

“You’ll never be ready in time,” she said, her tone impatient.

I have to plead guilty here. I know I’ve fallen back on this shortcut myself from time to time, though I do try to catch these when I’m revising. How is this example really any different from “she said impatiently”? A clearer, more vivid choice would be to give details about the character that show her impatience—thrumming her fingers on the table, pacing, plopping down in the chair by the door and then jumping back up again.

Here are some examples of dialogue shortcuts replaced with action and character details that allow the reader to hear the way the dialogue is spoken without being told how it is spoken:

“Time to do my homework,” Alice groaned.

Consider replacing groaned with details that reveal everything your reader needs to know about Alice’s feelings about homework:

Alice let her bookbag slide from her sagging shoulder and drop onto the kitchen table with a thud. She dragged the chair out with the toe of her sneaker and collapsed into it like a ragdoll. “Time to do my homework,” she said.

Another example:

“This is the last time I stop the car,” Dad said impatiently.

The word impatiently can be unpacked and its meaning revealed with details:

Dad’s shoulders stiffened and his hands flexed on the steering wheel. Shooting me a quick, narrow-eyes glance, he turned toward the exit ramp at the last possible moment. “This is the last time I stop the car,” he said.

And lastly:

“I’m sorry I lied to you,” she said, her tone heavy with remorse.

Imagine this dialogue shortcut replaced by the following:

Jessica pressed the knuckles of one hand tight against her lips. Her gaze stayed locked on the tiled floor. “I’m sorry I lied to you,” she said through her fingers.

Dialogue shortcuts may save a writer time, but  when overused they rob writing of clarity and immediacy. Take the time to hunt down these shortcuts and replace them with details and your characters’ words will come to life.

What are your thoughts on dialogue? Do you find it difficult to write vivid dialogue, or does it come easily for you? Can you think of other dialogue traps to avoid? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


17 Responses to Clear and Vivid Dialogue

  1. Stela Brinzeanu Aug 13 2013 at 6:14 am #

    Writing vivid dialogue takes me twice as much time as everything else. I read it out aloud and make more changes. Give it to beta readers – more changes.. Yes, I’ve learned to treat it with respect and it’s still a work in progress..
    Your article has inspired me to go and cast another eye on my manuscript! Thank you for this timely reminder!

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 13 2013 at 10:53 am #

      Hi Stela! Reading dialogue aloud is such a great tip! It’s definitely a balancing act – enough tags to keep things clear, personal speaking styles but nothing too distracting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and best of luck with your manuscript! 🙂

  2. chemistken Aug 13 2013 at 8:27 am #

    While I do try to minimize adverbs and dialogue tags in my stories, I’m more tolerant of them than some other writers. Sometimes, forcing the reader to wade through a sentence or two to show something that could be summed up quite nicely in a simple word (or two) is a waste of their time (and mine). And you always run the risk that the reader may not interpret your showing in the same way as you. For example, I think I got a much better feel for how Alice felt when you used the word “groaned” than I did from the two sentences you replaced it with. Sometimes, it’s better to let the reader fill in the blanks themselves. Just my opinion, though.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 13 2013 at 10:48 am #

      Hi Chemistken! Thanks for contributing your thoughts here. In a lot of ways, I feel it comes down to balance. Certainly pace needs to be taken into consideration. I do think that these “don’ts” can be used appropriately in certain situations. I believe overuse is the real thing to avoid, and allowing yourself to depend on these can (IMHO) become a crutch. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Rowenna Aug 13 2013 at 10:04 am #

    Dialogue is one of the points I find easier than others–but there’s always something new to learn and try, too!

    For me, I’m like Chemistken that I think an occasional, deliberately placed tag can work well. It’s when writers feel that every tag needs to be different–or even, that they always need a tag!–that things get distracting. And sometimes, to keep the scene moving, a condensed “he said, impatient” works better than showing every nuance. I think it’s all about balance, pacing, and voice. (Opinions as a reader on this point–I know I’m guilty of overuse on both sides as a writer!)

    I also think that the words the characters are saying are more important that what surrounds them–often, if you pick the right phrasing, you don’t need to show how the character is feeling or reacting, because they tell you on their own! You might not need an adverb or even a description of how the character said the lines if the lines themselves are vivid. Usually when I find myself really feeling the need for a “she said angrily” the real issue is that I need to revisit the dialogue itself.

    “Ah, shoot,” she said, “I just wrote a darn book on dialogue in the comments. Sorry!”

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 13 2013 at 10:11 am #

      Awesome comments, Rowenna! I definitely agree with you and Chemistken in that these rules aren’t for every line of dialogue. I also think dropping tags all together can be terrific (as long as I’m not forced to make notes to keep track of who is speaking!) Thanks for adding your thoughts! 🙂

  4. Cheyenne Aug 13 2013 at 11:32 am #

    Great tips about unpacking! In a writer’s group (#writemotivation), someone just posted a link to this article by Chuck Palahniuk on a similar topic: and it got me thinking.

    Show don’t tell is a skill I’m constantly practicing so I don’t overuse tags, etc. The only trouble is word count. Nowadays we’re being told to cut if we want to get an agent/deal. 120k is bandied about as “standard” for adult fantasy, and yet some say this is now TOO LONG & 100k or less is preferable.

    While I understand the financial and bookshelf space aspects of shorter word counts, this means leaving out a lot of world building and storytelling that would enrich our stories. If, as Chuck suggests, for every single thought word, or any of his examples, we use a lengthy paragraph 4x the word count of something simple like, “Bob hated Mary,” then we would NEVER get our story published. This is a frustrating dichotomy for someone like myself who’s still trying to get an agent, let alone a deal.

    Yesterday I heard Diana Gabaldon speak, and she said her first book (Outlander) is a whopping 305,000 words. Each subsequent book increased. I would never begrudge a single word of Diana’s books. They’re exquisite. And yet she would NEVER, EVER get a deal today as a new author with those numbers. There’ll be far fewer Diana Gabaldons and writers of that ilk in the future, unless they get wildly successful with something about 80k first. She doesn’t waste a word, in my opinion, and every scene, however insignificant it might seem at first, builds to the overall fullness of the characters/world. Obviously, authors that have already seized their success are given more leeway, but that was her *first* novel.

    It seems like in order to protract every short, telling phrase, that means leaving out world building. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out how to balance. Anyhow, sorry for rambling! :}

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 13 2013 at 11:44 am #

      Don’t apologize about “rambling” – what a great addition to this conversation! I agree that we are told to cut cut CUT, and I myself try to write lean. My revisions are always longer because I unpack my shortcuts (where practical) and I add in world-building. What you say is so true, though – we are so often counseled to keep our word count down. It is definitely a Catch 22.

      In the end, I think you’re on the right track – it comes down to balance. I wish us both luck in finding it! 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

      • Cheyenne Aug 13 2013 at 11:47 am #

        Right on, Julie. Balance is that elusive thing I’m striving for! 🙂 Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and great tips!

  5. Aubrey Cann Aug 13 2013 at 11:40 am #

    This is so useful for me right now! I’m in the middle of revising and find that I’m writing a lot of dialogue scenes. It can even bore me if I’m not doing it right. Thanks for the breakdown of how to make it interesting.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 13 2013 at 11:59 am #

      Hi Aubrey! I have definitely been bored by my own dialogue, too. 🙂 Don’t be too hard on yourself, though. After all, you know the story, you know the characters – it’s going to be hard for them to surprise you after a while. Best of luck with your revision. I hope these tips help!

  6. Regency Aug 13 2013 at 8:42 pm #

    Dialogue is something I do well at. It’s all the other stuff that gets in the way. I want to describe, but then I worry that I’m disrupting the flow of the scene with protracted description. It’s a balance, you everyone’s already said, but it’s mega-pain to get right the first time. That’s what revising’s for.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 13 2013 at 8:50 pm #

      So true! Balancing all the elements is a challenge, but I couldn’t agree with you more about revision. Thanks so much for commenting. 🙂

  7. Alexa Y. Aug 18 2013 at 6:54 am #

    This post is spot on! I’m certainly guilty of taking dialogue shortcuts, but because of your examples, I can see how it could benefit from more “showing” and less “telling”. Thanks for sharing your advice Julie!

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 18 2013 at 1:51 pm #

      Thanks Alexa, I’m so glad you liked the post! I’m often guilty of these shortcuts, too. Weeding them out is a big part of my revision process. Best of luck with yours! 🙂

  8. Hamed Sep 7 2013 at 11:00 am #

    As always, that was an enormously educative and enlightening post.
    I don’t know, but sometimes (especially among novice unprofessional writers) I can track down traces of these kind of traps under unnecessary “Parentheses” and “Bracket” in the middle of a dialogue just to imply a certain kind of feeling or some unfunny jokes [yeah, I know. They are SO lame].
    Can I ask a really not-related question?
    OK. Here it comes. Why in English dialogues you use “he said/she said” after the dialogue? Let me explain: I’m Iranian. I don’t know, but when I’m reading a dialogue in an English book it took me a while to find out who’s talking. I read somewhere, probably in an article in the web, that great authors write sentences that are so clear and vivid that you need no additional “he said/she said”. True, but isn’t it easier if writers use “He said/She said” just before the dialogues?
    And one related question:
    When we attribute speech, how can we find out where should we place these tags in a dialogue? I mean when they should be put at the end and when in the middle of a sentence?
    Thank you and have great day.

  9. Hamed Sep 7 2013 at 11:04 am #

    Thank you and have A great day.

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