I’m going to let you in on a little secret (the first of the dialogue tips I’ll be sharing in this article): dialogue is one of the first things a literary agent will check when evaluating the marketability of your book.
The reason is simple, really.
Dialogue instantly reveals your skill as a writer. Bad dialogue signals the work of an amateur who has failed to grasp the mechanics of speech. Good dialogue illuminates your characters, moves your plot forward, and develops relationships.Dialogue is one of the first things an agent checks when evaluating your book’s marketability.Click To Tweet
Creating good dialogue is hard work. It takes practice and patience, but once you’ve mastered it, your credibility as an author will improve tremendously. Not to mention you will also pass the literary agent litmus test with flying colors.
So what triggers a literary agent’s ‘weak dialogue’ alarm? Here are six useful dialogue tips to help you avoid that formidable slush pile.
1. No explanation necessary
You are a lovely person and, because of this, you make extra sure that your readers understand what your characters are saying. Consider the following:
“That is fantastic news,” he said happily.
Look right to you? If it does, you have just fallen into a very common trap. In this example, you’re actually telling your reader about your character’s feelings twice. ‘That is fantastic news’ clearly conveys happiness, so why use the adverb ‘happily’ to reiterate this?
Explaining your dialogue can alienate and sometimes frustrate your readers. They’re intelligent enough to understand what’s going on, so don’t patronize them by highlighting the obvious.
Doing this also prevents your readers from getting to know your characters on a deeper, more personal level. If you tell them that your character did something happily, all they will know is that your character was happy, which means nothing. Consider the following:
“I can’t believe it!” she said.
In this example, I have not given the dialogue any explanation, which has achieved two things. Firstly, it has tightened up my dialogue so that the focus is now on what is being said rather than how it is being said (more on this later). Secondly, readers are encouraged to imagine my character’s surprise, which helps them get closer to my character.
If you find that your dialogue does need explanation, then frankly, something is wrong with your dialogue.
2. Banish those pesky ‘ly’ adverbs
The second of my dialogue tips is applicable to most of your prose writing, but it’s especially important for speech. More often than not, writers attempt to break the monotony of using the word said by replacing it with ‘ly’ adverbs (happily, sadly, angrily). Writers tend to use ‘ly’ adverbs to smuggle emotion into their dialogue and, by doing this, they are actually smuggling in unnecessary explanation. A powerful dialogue conveys emotion through what’s being said rather than how it is being said. If your character is sad, it is your responsibility to show this sadness and to show what there is about your character that makes him/her sad. Consider the following:
Marcy dabbed at the tear trailing down her cheek.
“I don’t think I can keep going,” she said.
Here I have showed the reader that Marcy is sad and have used dialogue to convey her emotion. Had I added, ‘she said sadly’ at the end of the dialogue, this would have instantly removed any chance for my readers to connect with Marcy.
3. Keep your dialogue transparent
If you’ve written powerful dialogue, the last thing you want to do is draw attention away from it. Explanations and ‘ly’ adverbs disrupt the flow of your dialogue as they jump out at the reader and signal, if only for a second, that you are hard at work behind the scenes.
Now, you may not like this, but the verb said should be your go-to verb when writing dialogue. Said is an unusual word primarily because we interpret it in a very mechanical way. In fact, when we see the word said, we simply gloss over it as if it were no more than a comma or a full stop.Learn to love ‘said’. It might bother you, but the reader doesn’t even see it.Click To Tweet
Its unassuming presence allows readers to focus on what your characters are saying rather than how they are saying it.
4. Become a student of conversation
Coffee shops, bars and restaurants are alive with people talking, laughing and sharing stories. I have been known to while away many Saturday mornings in my local coffee shop, jotting down conversation topics that are bandied around from table to table. I unabashedly pay attention to gestures, tones, facial expressions and reactions as these snippets from real life can help me write compelling and believable dialogue.
Conversation isn’t merely an exchange of words. Oh no, we also use body language to get our message across, so it goes without saying that this needs to be captured in your dialogue. Consider the following:
“You lied to me,” said Tara.
“We did it to protect you,” said John.
Roger stepped toward Tara and reached for her hand. “We didn’t want you to get hurt—”
Tara pushed his hand away and turned away from them. “I thought I could trust both of you”.
In this exchange, I have broken up the dialogue with a bit of physical action. On the one hand, using action to move the dialogue along satisfies my inner creative writer, as I’m not overusing the word said in this passage. On the other hand, the action makes my dialogue much more convincing.Sprinkle action into your dialogue to show intent and emotion in different ways.Click To Tweet
A Note of Caution: Using action to make your dialogue more interesting is a useful technique, however you must be careful not to overuse it as it can become very distracting for readers.
5. If it serves no purpose, it has to go!
Writers often fall into the trap of providing too much detail in their dialogue. Yes, you want to be as realistic as possible, but you do need to strike a balance between realism and giving your dialogue purpose. Remember, dialogue helps to move the story along, give depth and meaning to characters and to convey information. If your dialogue doesn’t serve any purpose, it has to go. Consider the following:
“I saw John in the park the other day,” said Mike.
“Oh did you?” asked Mary. “How’s he doing?”
“He has a new job. He has flexible working hours so he has lots more free time,” said Mike.
“Well, good for him,” said Mary. “Do you know what he wants to do with his free time?”
“No, I meant to ask him that,” said Mike.
This exchange between Mary and Mike is not only labored and downright boring, but it also serves no purpose. The reader is told nothing new about any of the characters, and the story just got a little more tedious because of it.
6. Read it aloud
The last of my dialogue tips is to read your work aloud. Reading your dialogue out loud is your secret weapon and the quickest way to identify problem areas. It will throw up any issues relating to pace, punctuation and flow.
When you’re reading out loud, take note of where you stumble or where you’re pausing unnaturally. Fix this. Take note of accidental rhymes or closely repeated words and edit them.
Listen to what you are saying and who is saying it. Do the words match the character? If your character is an uneducated gangster, make sure he sounds like it. If she’s a professor, make sure she sounds smart.
It’s impossible to read a bad sentence without flinching or stumbling along the way, so make sure you dedicate some time to reading your dialogue out loud.
Applying your dialogue tips
The tips above aren’t just quick fixes, but things to consider deeply when proofing and editing your work. Don’t feel overwhelmed; if you need to consider them one at a time, applying one for months before considering another, then do whatever works for you. Rest assured, you’ll see improvements in your writing sooner rather than later.
For more great dialogue tips, check out Is Your Dialogue Just Characters Talking?, When Can You Include Accent And Dialect In Your Dialogue? and 6 Secrets To Writing A Thrilling Argument. Or, to share your own dialogue tips, get in touch using the comments below.
22 thoughts on “6 Insanely Good Dialogue Tips From Your Future Literary Agent”
I recently participated in a writers forum that discussed this topic. It was easy to pick out the novices in the forum. They were the ones who insisted on not only using “ly” words to tell the reader the emotion, but also using a variety to dialogue tags, from opining to orating, from exclaiming to crying out, from whispering to snickering, from … well, you get the picture.
It’s good to see someone understands the best practices of contemporary writing.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts J. Great dialogue should be able to stand on its own without being propped up by attributives and tags. Authors should never underestimate the power of the word “said”.
Everything you said I agree with, and I attempt to make sure I’m following it.
I use “said” the most often, but I read another article that mentioned that word was overused and gave a list of other words that should be considered. Whose advice do writers follow? I’ve seen more conflicting advice on the do’s and dont’s of writing now more than ever.
Second, great piece. I like how you explained, then showed. It gave me great insight as to how to get my readers closer to my characters.
Third, Ouch! I can’t believe I forgot this important part of writing! Thank you for the reminder!
I recently discovered this app “AutoCrit”. It actually finds all the “ly” words and dialogue tags so you can go back through and edit where necessary. It also helps with “Passive Voice”, “Showing vs Telling”, “Overused Words,” “Pacing”, and about a dozen other things. It is (I’m guessing) all based on “algorithms” so it’s not perfect. I am hoping it will remove most of my rookie mistakes before I submit my manuscrpt to StandOutBooks. haha xD
AutoCrit can be a useful starting point in the self-editing process but you’re right, it is all based on algorithms and it takes a blanket approach to text which is not ideal.
I look forward to working with you on your manuscript whenever you are ready.
Wow, thank you so much for the advice! I always over-think the dialogue parts, I think. It’s good to know that simplicity is best. Guess I have some editing to do!
Thanks for stopping by; I’m glad the article helped.
Good luck with the editing.
I think I’ve broken every single one of these rules. Oops! I’m only thirteen, though so I’m not too disheartened. I’ve still got a lot of years to practice… Would you mind looking over a piece of dialogue I wrote and telling me what’s wrong with it, if it sounds natural and how it could be better? I’d really appreciate that because I want to improve and my mom just thinks everything I do is good just because I did it so that’s not much help.
I don’t necessarily accept describing action can be tedious if overdone. Writers must be incessantly intent on drawing readers away from their writing to the point were the words become invisible, leaving readers with feelings and impulses about the characters and the drama/conflicts that shape them and plot out the story. Never the writing. So in this regard using ‘said’ is also unnecessary in my opinion and I actually use it far more sparingly than the action I attribute to dislodge delivery. The best engineer for dialogue IMHO is the play write david Mamet. Genius
I especially found interesting these two advices:
– Become a student of conversation
– Read it out loud
Again: God bless the day I found this site. We have nothing similar in Italy, it would be really interesting to translate your posts.
I think you should have a bigger audience.
Thank you so very much for your kind words and I’m so pleased you find our blog useful. We aim to provide practical and relevant content so it’s good to know it’s working.
All the best,
Good list but you missed one. 🙂
In real life, when two people are talking, they almost never address one another by name. I see beginning writers make this mistake a lot.
“So, Bob, what are you doing today?”
“Well, Mary, I thought I’d quit my job and become a criminal mastermind.”
Also, while “said” is the best tag, if it’s obvious who’s speaking you may not need any tag.
Mary grabbed Bob’s hand. “Oh my God. My water broke.I’m going into labor.”
“You can’t! I’m not ready! I think I’m gonna faint.”
“What the hell are you fainting for? You’re not the one who’s going into labor.”
My two cents. 😉
People watching, gesture watching, conversation? Go immediately to your TV and turn on a really good drama, pick up the characters. Observe to your heart’s delight, hit pause, back up, listen again… Or watch late night TV or early morning TV to hear what people are talking about. Record what you see. Play it back. All from the comfort of your living room. Then, you can take your notes, head to coffeeshop and write! 🙂
Just come across this article today, and although it is a little older, it’s still extremely relevant. Thank you for the reminder. I often find myself struggling to find alternative words for ‘said’. But as you pointed out, it really isn’t necessary.
Thanks for the great article!
Thank you for giving advice! It helps me a lot.I overthink about writing a dialouge.But now,you this made me realize that a dialouge can be written simply and unique.I’m a 13 years old and I have a lot of time to practice writing.Thank you so much!
Lovely tips, now the hard part making it good. I need to go write more, not doing enough this week.
i like your dialog
What about a dialogue that includes one person, a student, listening to an expert who takes several paragraphs (two pages even) explaining the history of something to student? It’s happening live, so a backstory from a narrator doesn’t work. Besides, the student needs to react to what she’s being told. Is this ok?
I have another option since I have a panel of experts. Would it be better to attribute a couple of paragraphs to each expert?
As someone consistently fumbling through dialogue, this post is incredibly useful. These tips are incredibly useful and easily stick in the back of the mind. Thank you.
I’m writing my first novel. I’m arguing with my beta readers over ‘that’ and ‘very’. I contend that these words are the hallmarks of conversation and should be in the dialogues of specific characters. My beta reader argues that they should always be avoided. I’m doing the same thing by repeating words too close together This is what people do in real conversations. What do you think?
Ever since reading about dialogue tags I have looked hard at some of my favorite authors and some of the greats (often the same list). Although these authors keep tags to a minimum, there is now and then a tag tossed in there. I mention this because I believe there is a place for tags now and then. I love this site and have learned quite a bit from it, but at the end of the day…Write your own book the way you want to write it!