“What should we get Carla for her birthday?” Toni asked Sue.
“I don’t know,” Sue said and shrugged. “She’s been campaigning pretty hard for a puppy, but I don’t think Dad would appreciate that.”
Toni snorted. “What do I care what Dad would appreciate?” she asked bitingly. “It’s not like he has any respect for any of us.”
“Toni,” Sue said. “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” Toni asked. “Don’t tell the truth?”
Sue shrugged. “Just don’t right now. I know he’s been awful to you—”
“To all of us!”
Sue nodded. “Maybe.”
“Whatever. I just don’t want to talk about it right now. Can we get back to Carla’s birthday? Maybe deal with Dad later?”
Revised Dialogue Passage:
(1)Toni poured coffee into Sue’s mug then sat down across from her at the scarred Formica table. “What should we get Carla for her birthday?”
(2)Sue shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s been campaigning pretty hard for a puppy, but I don’t think Dad would appreciate that.”
(3)Toni snorted. “What do I care what Dad would appreciate? It’s not like he has any respect for any of us.”
(4)Sue’s eyes widened. “Toni. Don’t.”
(5)“Don’t what? Don’t tell the truth?”
(6)Sue ducked her head and rubbed one thumb along the handle on her mug. “Just don’t right now. I know he’s been awful to you—”
(7)“To all of us!”
(8)Sue gazed out the kitchen window and frowned. “Maybe.”
(10)“Whatever. I just don’t want to talk about it right now. Can we get back to Carla’s birthday? Maybe deal with Dad later?”
Line (1) provides a setting in which the dialogue takes place and therefore removes the need for a dialogue tag which identifies to whom the dialogue is addressed. Line (2) removes a dialogue tag since Sue’s gesture coupled with her dialogue is enough to indicate that it is her speaking. Line (3) removes a dialogue tag because the gesture is enough to identify who is speaking. The adverb attached to that dialogue tag is also unnecessary in any case since the description of Toni it provides is implied in the dialogue. Line (4) provides an action for Sue that makes the dialogue tag unnecessary. Line (5) removes the dialogue tag because it is clear, even without any attributed gesture or action, who is speaking. Line (6) gives Sue unique, characterizing gestures instead of the generic gesture (a shrug) which does little to tell the reader anything about Sue, specifically, as a character. It also brings the setting back into the dialogue exchange and helps keep the narrative going while the dialogue exchange unfolds. Line (7) remains unchanged. Line (8) gives Sue more characterizing gesture and again eliminates any need for a dialogue tag. Lines (9) and (10) remain unchanged.
Doing quick exercises like this one with any dialogue you come across that you think doesn’t work should help you improve your own dialogue.
About the Author
Laura E. Koons attended Lycoming College and then completed graduate degrees in Creative Writing at both Ohio University and The University of Tennessee. She has worked on several literary magazines including Quarter After Eight, Drunken Boat: an online journal of art and literature, and Grist: The Journal for Writers, where she served as Fiction Editor for the inaugural issue.
She currently edits for Red Adept Publishing. In her free time, Laura can usually be found with a book in hand, but sometimes she puts them down long enough to enjoy swimming, crocheting, and doing volunteer work at both her local library and history museum. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two ancient, snarky cats.
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