- If you haven’t heard yet, dialogue tags – he said’s and she said’s – are best kept minimal. Use other methods of making it clear who’s talking: distinct speech patterns, word choices, accents, etc.; gestures or actions; dialogue that only one character would say (you know the blunt one is the one who made the rude comment, the peacemaker character is the one apologizing for it, and the stranger is the one reacting, for example).
- Make it realistic. I don’t care how dramatic it sounds, if it’s something no one would say in real life, don’t have someone say it in your book. If it sounds like something out of a cheesy movie when you read it out loud to yourself, you need to rewrite it, unless you have a drama queen (or king) on your hands in the form of a character, in which case other characters need to roll their eyes so your readers don’t have to.
- Even in fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, etc., bear the above in mind. Yes, people speak differently at different time periods or imaginary representations of different time periods. Regardless, stilted dialogue is a turn-off to most readers, and it’s all the more important to make it sound natural, even if the word choice is more formal or more slang-ridden than what you’d get in a mainstream novel. Fantasy with cornball dialogue is a particular annoyance of mine, referred to as “forsoothly fantasy”, because it makes me embarrassed to associate any of my own work with the genre. Don’t ruin it for me, okay? I want to be proud of what I write.
- Always read your dialogue aloud to yourself at some point in your writing process. Even if you have to mutter it under your breath because you write in a library or a coffee shop, you need to check out how your dialogue sounds. You’ll catch phrases that no one would really say, sentences that are too long or complex for dialogue, dialogue that’s slipping into narration and needs to be broken up with interruptions or needs to be more conversationally phrased…all kinds of things that can slip by unnoticed if you’ve never read your dialogue aloud.
- Never forget that you can skim over the boring parts of an exchange between characters. Yes, in real life, we greet and ask, “How are you,” back and forth a couple times and ask about basic stuff like the weather and so on to get a conversation started. In a book, you can just say, They exchanged greetings, bantering about the heat of the summer before Bob finally said, “So, what’s the news on this ‘Rest Stop Killer?'” or whatever. See, right to the point, and you got a little detail in there as well.