For Writers: 5 Tips for Better Dialog
I'm a romance writer, yes, but I was a longtime romance reader long before that. And even before I studied the writing craft, much less had written my onw book, I knew, at the gut level, that there was one key difference between the books and authors that I loved, and the books/authors that were merely "okay," or that I didn't even finish.
Nothing screams "amateur" to me faster than corny, stilted, or downright painful dialog. And nothing will ensure I'll one-click preorder your books for life like clever, witty, snappy dialog.
So you have a sense of how I'm gauging all of this, here are some romance authors who do dialog well (authors of other genres, you need to write good dialog too, but I don't have specific examples for you, sorry!)
Romance Authors with Snappy Dialog:
Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Christina Lauren. Julia Quinn. Nora Roberts. Kristan Higgins. RS Grey. Alice Clayton. Rachel Van Dyken. Julie James.
There are others, of course, that I'm forgetting or haven't read yet, but it's a pretty elite crew.
Why? Because writing good dialog is surprisingly hard. Writing good witty dialog is even harder. But, as with all things, the good news is that practice and awareness of how you're writing your dialog can go a long way.
Five Tips to Better Dialog:
(1) Keep it short.
The entire purpose of dialog is conversation—the back and forth between two or more characters. In order to make the dialog flow, don't have one character go on for more than a couple lines/sentences without breaking up their "speech" with another character's dialog, or a least an action beat of some kind. You know those people in your life who just seem to drone on, and you can't get a word in edge-wise? Don't let your characters be those people.
(2) Don't get fancy with your dialog tags.
I've mentioned this a million times before, and I'll continue to mention it until I die. Nothing says amateur writing to me like picking up a book and seeing, "she exclaimed." He cried." "She shouted. "He burst out." "She declared." "He proclaimed." These are called dialog tags, and the best dialog tag? Said. He said. She said. Don't be afraid to use it repeatedly, almost exclusively. A couple "she snapped" or "he protested" are fine, but use them sparingly, and for emphasis. Don't worry about being repetitive or "unoriginal" by using said. Said is like white noise, and keeps the reader's focus on the important part: what's being said, rather than how it's being said.
(3) Don't use names within the dialog
In real life, people don't tend to use the first name of the person they're speaking to. When my husband and I are home alone, I would never say, "Anthony, did you get the mail?" I'd just say, "Did you get the mail?" The same goes for fiction writing. With the exception of a dramatic/emotional scene where one character is pleading with the other, ("Sarah, please give me another chance.") resist the urge to use character names within the dialog themselves. If it doesn't happen in real life, it shouldn't happen in your book.
(4) But don't be too realistic
You want your dialog to read as real, but if you make it too real, you'll have a hot mess on your hands. In real life, most of us aren't terribly eloquent when chatting with our friends, spouse, coworkers, etc. We use more words than necessary, and there are a lot of like/ums/whatever/you knows. You can use some of those for character nuance, but in general, you want to honor rule number one (keep it short) over being long-winded, even if long winded is more realistic for most of us ;-)
(5) Resist the urge to inject cleverness
I'm not saying you can't have clever dialog. All the romance authors I mentioned above have very quick, clever, and witty dialog. But there is nothing more painful than reading a line of dialog that you can tell is supposed to be witty and misses the mark. Or, worst of all, a bit of dialog that's not witty at all to the reader, but in the next line, the "hero smiled at her witty response."
Look, if you're witty, you're witty. If it's a witty line, it's a witty line. And that's great. But chances are if you sit down with the intention to write witty dialog, you're going to end up with some wince-inducing cheesy line. I see a lot of dialog where the "banter" comes across as the equivalent of, "I know you are, but what am I?" It's one of those things where you you know the speaker (or author) thinks it's the zinger of the century, and it's all you can do not to flinch in embarrassment by their smugness over such a lame line. Instead, focus on authenticity. Try to get into your character's head and let him/her speak normally, as this person would naturally in real life, without worrying about whether or not it's "witty." I find that the clever lines tend to come when I'm not looking for them.
And lastly, when in doubt:
Read it aloud.
It's a great way to "hear" when your dialog turns clunky or cheesy, and trim those parts!