Ten Tips to Punchier Dialog

Blogging on Delia Latham’s blog today. Here’s the post:

I’ve heard publishing professionals say that when they want to know if a prospective fiction client can write, they flip through the manuscript for the first section of dialog to see if the author has mastered the art.

Dialog is that important.

So today I’m going to give you my top ten tips for turning your mediocre dialog into sparkling literary genius.

  1. Eliminate all names, nicknames, and pet names.
  2. Eliminate all nonsense words: um, uh, hmm, etc.
  3. Eliminate all other filler words: like, well, you know, anyway, etc.
  4. Eliminate all greetings: hi, hello, how are you, what’s up, how’s it going.
  5. Eliminate all direct answers: yes, no, maybe. (Also, most pleases and thank-yous.)
  6. Eliminate repeated sentiments: “Is she mad?” “She’s mad.” “How mad.” “Very mad.”
  7. Eliminate as many dialog tags (he said, she said) as possible. Eliminate every dialog tag that accompanies an action beat. (“Almost there,” he said as he turned left becomes “Almost there.” He turned left.)
  8. Eliminate all adverbs in dialog tags. (“I love you,” he said softly becomes “I love you,” he whispered.)
  9. Eliminate telling in dialog. If you could start the sentence with “As you know,” delete it.
  10. Eliminate every predictable answer.

You might have noticed that every tip begins with the word “eliminate.” I know it sounds drastic—it is drastic. But when you take out the unnecessary words, what matters will shine through.

Take this sparkling example:

“Hey John. How have you been?” Sue asked while carrying her tray to the table.

“Well, as you know, my father died last week, so I’ve been sad,” John replied sadly while he set his tray on the table.

“Gee, I’m sorry you’ve been sad. And I’m sorry about your father dying last week, John,” Sue said, picking up her chocolate milk.

“Thank you for saying that. Hmm, how have you been after you and Billy broke up when you caught him kissing Karen at the bonfire a couple of weeks ago and you were devastated,” John said quietly, unwrapping his sandwich.

“Thank you for asking about Billy. He’s a jerk, and I hate him. So I decided to plant a bomb in his locker and blow up the entire school,” Sue whispered conspiratorially.

Okay, I had to add the bomb just to make that dialog more exciting. Let’s see what happens when we follow those ten tricks.

Sue paid for her lunch, grabbed her tray, and fell in step beside John. “Glad you’re back. How’s your family?”

He shrugged. “It’s been hard.”

She slid her tray onto their usual table. “I really liked your father. He was always nice to me.”

“You were his favorite.” He swallowed a lump of emotion. “Let’s talk about something else. Any updates on the Billy situation?”

“I thought about putting a bomb in his locker.”

“A bit harsh to kill the entire student body just because your boyfriend kissed another girl.”

“I think it’s a fitting statement about the danger of infidelity.” She winked and bit into her turkey sandwich.

It’s not going to win any awards, but is it better? I think so.

Try those tricks in your own stories. Eliminate the things I suggested, rewrite where necessary to make it flow, and then read the segment aloud. If you absolutely must add back in a little of what you deleted, go ahead, but do so sparingly.

Punchy dialog moves fast and keeps readers on their toes. And that’s one thing those publishing professionals are looking for.


2 responses to “Ten Tips to Punchier Dialog

  1. This is a good list to post beside the computer. Habits are hard to break and a checklist often helps remind me what to do – or in this case not to do.

  2. Thanks, Kristina. It’s easy to remember when I’m editing, but when I’m writing my own novels, I forget, too. Maybe I should post it by my computer, too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s