How to improve dialogue and capture your readers’ attention

This appeared first on the Hope, Hearts, and Heroes blog.



For some writers, dialogue is their biggest challenge, not necessarily because they don’t know what they want their characters to say, but because they don’t know how to present that dialogue well.

Today I thought I’d jump off a topic our own Kelly Barr touched on a couple of weeks ago on the blog when she wrote about the difference between action beats and dialogue tags.

As a new fiction writer, I am among those writers who sometimes don’t do the best job of presenting dialogue in my stories.

One of the traps that we new writers fall into is adding descriptive words to replace “said” after every part of dialogue. Instead of simply writing “said”, writers often try to break up that monotony by replacing “said” with terms like “exclaimed,” “declared” or “shouted.” Sometimes these replacements work, but sometimes, if read in successive dialogue exchanges, these descriptive words can be completely awkward.

Here is an example:

“Jenny, are you going with me to the dance?” Jack asked.

“I don’t know! Stop asking me!” Jenny exclaimed.

“Gosh, sorry,” Jack extolled. “I didn’t realize wanting to take my girlfriend to a dance would be so upsetting.”

“I’m sorry,” Jenny sighed. “It’s just — I’m tired and things haven’t been great at home. My parents are fighting again.”

Instead of writing words like asked, exclaimed, or extolled, we could instead add what are called “action beats.” Action beats are when the writer has the character who is speaking doing something before they speak, to show the reader who it is that is speaking.

So, let’s try the above example again, by using action beats. We’re also going to take out the word “asked” because I once heard author Jerry B. Jenkins say he felt the word was unnecessary if there was a question mark already at the end of the sentence. It’s clear a question is being asked. There’s no need to reiterate that the person asked a question by writing “he/she asked.”

Updated example:

Jack leaned back against the row of lockers next to Jenny’s. He turned his head to look at her. “Are you going with me to the dance?” (We don’t have to add Jenny’s name since we already said he was standing next to Jenny’s locker.)

Jenny tipped her head back and groaned, slamming her locker door closed. “I don’t know! Stop asking me!”

“Gosh, sorry.” Jack held his hands, palms out, in front of him. “I didn’t realize wanting to take my girlfriend to a dance would be so upsetting.”

Jenny signed, hugging her books to her chest. “Sorry. It’s just —” She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them again. “ I’m tired and things haven’t been great at home. My parents are fighting again.”

Sometimes we writers even write “said” way too often. There is no need to write “she said,” or “he said” after every word our character speaks.

So that it doesn’t sound as if I am slamming other new writers, I thought I’d pull some examples from my first attempts at writing fiction to show how distracting it is to write “said” after every part of dialogue and how equally distracting it is to try to come up with new superlatives to attribute a quote to a particular character.

The following excerpt is from my first book, A Story To Tell. It’s since been revamped and re-edited, but this is how it was written before I knew more about how to write dialogue.

“She’s too young for dances,” Daddy said, sitting in his chair, reading the local newspaper, not even looking up.

“Well, Edith is going to be there,” Mama offered, mentioning my older sister.

“Is this meant to comfort me?” Daddy asked.

 Edith walked into the living room in a flared blue skirt and a white blouse with the top two buttons unbuttoned. “Oh, good grief,” she said. “She’s 17, Daddy. She’s old enough for dances.”

Daddy looked at Edith disapprovingly.

“Is that what you’re wearing?” he asked sharply.

“What’s wrong with it?” Edith looked down at her skirt and smoothed it with her hands.

“It’s fine if you want to wait on a corner in the city,” Daddy mumbled under his breath.

I knew Edith didn’t hear him, but I did.

“It looks lovely,” Mama said quickly. “At least it’s longer than the last skirt you wore. Are you going to wear your pearls with it?”

“Pearls aren’t in fashion right now, Mama,” Edith said.

Later I rewrote this part and tightened up the dialogue a bit more, taking out some of the “saids” and “askeds”.

 “She’s too young for dances.”

Daddy was sitting in his chair, his eyes focused on the paper.

“Well, Edith is going to be there,” Mama offered.

Daddy peered over the paper, one eyebrow crocked. “Is this meant to comfort me?”

Edith flounced into the living room wearing a flared blue skirt and a white blouse with the top two buttons unbuttoned. “Oh, good grief. She’s 17, Daddy. She’s old enough for dances.”

Daddy glanced at Edith disapprovingly.

“Is that what you’re wearing?” His voice was sharp.

“What’s wrong with it?” Edith looked down at her skirt, smoothed it with her hands.

“It would be fine if you were standing on a corner in some city,” Daddy mumbled.

I knew Edith didn’t hear him, but I did.

“It looks lovely,” Mama said hastily. “At least it’s longer than the last skirt you wore. Are you going to wear your pearls with it?”

“Pearls aren’t in fashion right now, Mama.” Edith waved her hand dismissively, shifting her attention to me. “Come on, Blanche, let’s find you a dress and see what we can do with your hair.”

In addition to not adding too many adjectives to your dialogue tags, another way to avoid stilted dialogue is to simply take out the dialogue tags altogether. This is easy to do if you only have two people in a scene, as long as you only do it for a short exchange.

If you have two people talking back and forth about a subject, it isn’t really necessary to keep saying “he said,” and then “she said.”

We get it. The two people are talking to each other, so for a selection of lines, you could simply share what they are saying to each other.

I’ll show this, using an example from my third book, The Farmer’s Daughter. First, the way I wouldn’t do it now that I know more about dialogue:


“You have a degree in computer programing, Alex,” his dad had said over the phone in his familiar depreciating tone. “We could use you here in the IT department. And from there, maybe we can move you up into — ”

“Thanks, Dad,” Alex said. “I’m good here.”

“Farming?” his dad asked. “Really? This isn’t what I had in mind for you when—”

“When you what?” Alex asked. “Abandoned Tyler and I all those years ago?”

“That’s not what happened, Alex,” his dad said. “When you get older, you’ll understand that life isn’t always easy.”

“Yeah, okay,” Alex said. “Listen, Dad, I have to go. Mr. Tanner needs me to clean some cow poop out of the stalls, and I’d rather do that than talk to you.”

Now, the cleaned-up version from the book:

“You have a degree in computer programing, Alex,” his dad had said over the phone in his familiar depreciating tone. “We could use you here in the IT department. And from there, maybe we can move you up into — ”

“Thanks, Dad. I’m good here.”

“Farming? Really? This isn’t what I had in mind for you when—”

“When you what? Abandoned Tyler and I all those years ago?”

“That’s not what happened, Alex. When you get older, you’ll understand that life isn’t always easy.”

“Yeah, okay. Listen, Dad, I have to go. Mr. Tanner needs me to clean some cow poop out of the stalls, and I’d rather do that than talk to you.”

Looking at this now, I’d love to clean it up even further, by changing the first sentence to: “You have a degree in computer programming, Alex.” His dad’s tone on the other end of the phone was depreciating. As usual.

None of what I am suggesting here means I am some expert at writing dialogue or haven’t made some insanely silly blunders in my dialogue. I’m nowhere near an expert and looking back over my last two books, I can see some major errors, including how I over-explain in between dialogue and offer too many action beats.

There is always room for improvement, no matter where you are in your writing journey so if you are doing some of what I’ve mentioned above — making what some call “writing mistakes” — it’s not the end of the world. Writing is a journey, and you can always improve whether in your next novel, novella, or short story or by editing the story you’ve already written.

Not only can, and will you improve, but some readers aren’t as bothered by these so-called mistakes as fellow writers are. Do your best to tighten your writing, but don’t let what you think you are doing wrong, stop you from continuing to write.

Learn more about the best way to use dialogue in the following articles:

4 thoughts on “How to improve dialogue and capture your readers’ attention

  1. Practice makes “perfect”! Sometimes I go back through stories I wrote when I was in high school and just cringe. Now that I review books from traditional publishers and indie authors, it’s interesting to see the difference between highly edited and polished books and books that feel very much like they’re an author’s beginning attempt. Even though I wanted to be published back during my teen years, I’m so glad I wasn’t! Everything can always be improved on and it just takes tons of writing practice and learning. It is, though, so nice to have samples from back then and now to see just how far I’ve come even if I now also cringe when I read books that sound just like my early attempts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Sunday Bookends: I finished another book (it’s a miracle), cabin fever, rough draft finished | Boondock Ramblings

  3. Recently I started working on a novella or novel (not sure which, yet) and this is exactly one of the issues I’ve encountered. I really love “action beats.” Now I know the nifty term for them as well!

    One of the writers I like hardly describes dialogue and doesn’t even use quotation marks. I thought it was weird at first but I’ve come to really appreciate her style. She writes in first person and it’s like she’s literally in the character’s head; it feels very natural.

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