Last night, I attended a terrific program run by the Northern Virginia Writers, which is a committee of The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Our speaker was Leslie Pietrzyk, author of "A Year and a Day" and "Pears on a Willow Tree."
Leslie shared nine secrets for writing terrific dialog. A fantastic presentation!
I'd like to discuss one "secret" that I think a lot of writers struggle with: effective dialog tags. Leslie and other instructors have taught me a couple of pointers worth sharing:
1. Keep it simple. It's tempting to tag our dialog with Ann murmured, or Bob snarled, but 99 times out of 100, it's better to simply use Ann said or Bob said. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you want to let your dialog speak for itself (punny!). The words your character speaks, the tone of the scene and the actions your character takes should convey his/her mood. If they don't, you need to take a look at how to make the dialog and the scene stronger, without relying on descriptive tags. Second, readers tend to almost skip over the words "Ann said" and "Bob said" and read the dialog straight through, like a conversation, which of course is what you want. The tags allow them to keep track of who is talking, but they don't interfere with the flow the way "murmured" and "snarled" might.
2. Look for opportunities to omit the tag and instead describe an action. For example, you can write, "I'm hungry," Ann said. Or you can write, Ann picked up the menu. "I'm hungry." Or even, "I'm hungry." Ann picked up the menu and turned straight to the dessert section. The second option offers a couple of advantages over the first: It includes an action that helps move the scene forward, and it provides a visual to bring the reader into the scene. The third option does both of these things and goes one step further to reveal something about the character. When you find yourself writing "he said," "she said" over and over, try injecting some action for variety and effect.