I’ve heard publishing professionals say that when they want to know if a prospective fiction client can write, they flip through the manuscript in search of 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.
- Eliminate all names, nicknames, and pet names.
- Eliminate all nonsense words: um, uh, hmm, etc.
- Eliminate all other filler words: like, well, you know, anyway, etc.
- Eliminate all greetings: hi, hello, how are you, what’s up, how’s it going.
- Eliminate all direct answers: yes, no, maybe. (Also, most pleases and thank-yous.)
- Eliminate repeated sentiments: “Is she mad?” “She’s mad.” “How mad.” “Very mad.”
- 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.)
- Eliminate all adverbs in dialog tags. (“I love you,” he said softly becomes “I love you,” he whispered.)
- Eliminate telling in dialog. If you could start the sentence with “As you know,” delete it.
- 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. That’s just one important thing publishing professionals are looking for.