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.
“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.
“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.