Dear Editor: I've been told my dialogue is clunky. Any suggestions? —Fred C.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said.’” That’s rule #4 in “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.” I’d call it my rule #1 in writing good dialogue. Doing this is a “mortal sin,” according to Leonard. Why? It’s distracting and slows down the plot by telling the reader how the character feels, twice. It seems like an insult to the reader.
“‘I just got a big raise,’ Tina said happily.” Obviously Tina is happy about this.
“‘You are my best friend,’ Tom said honestly.” Is there a reason to doubt Tom’s honesty?
“‘This thing is about to explode,’ George said seriously.” Duh!
My other rules:
2. Leave out the small stuff. “Hey dude, how’s your day going so far?” If it’s not essential to the exchange between the two characters, leave it out.
3. Listen. Develop your ear for language by listening to everyone around you—the couple arguing in the restaurant, the kids chatting on the bus. Take notes. Learn to write the way people talk.
4. Read your dialogue aloud. If you find yourself stumbling over words or it sounds stilted to you, it probably is. Back to the drawing board, or rather, your notebook. It’s like learning a new language. After a while, it comes naturally.
Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.
If you have a question for the editor, please email Betty Sargent.