#1: Check your dialog for explanations. Look for times when you've TOLD us your character is experiencing an emotion. In my writing yesterday, I found a place where I had written:
"What's wrong?" she asked, confused.
Oops. We don't need the writer (me) to tell the reader that the character's confused. It's much better just to ask, "What's wrong?" And if it's clear who's speaking, we don't even need the "she asked."
#2: Eliminate every -ly adverb in your speaker attributions.
One day I also found where I"d written:
"No slaver holder is ever going to sit at my table," said Mrs. Haynes emphatically.
Groan. Two big no-nos. First, the "said Mrs. Haynes" is old-fashioned, it should be turned around. "Mrs. Haynes said" is much better. And since this conversation is taking place at a dining room table where more than two people are present, we do need the speaker attribution. But the adverb "emphatically" has to go. I need to SHOW the reader that she was being emphatic, not just TELL them. So--I looked at the dialogue. It SOUNDS pretty emphatic by itself, and that's good. But if I want to further visualize the scene, I can do it. My finished sentence?
"No slaver is ever going to sit at my table." Mrs. Haynes unfolded her napkin with an emphatic snap. "You can be assured of that, Son."
# 3: Don't make your speaker attributions be physical impossibilities.
Never have be guilty of the following: "Yada, yada, yada," she smiled.
Characters can't speak and snarl, grimace, shrug, etc. A simple "said" is usually just fine. Editors have told me this is the FIRST mark of an amateur.
# 4: Get rid of speaker attributions entirely as long as it's clear who's speaking.
# 5: Don't begin a paragraph with the speaker attribution: Henry said, "It's time to get started." Much better to begin the paragraph:
"It's time to get started," Henry said, leaning toward me with a leer.
BETTER YET: Henry leaned toward me with a leer. "It's time to get started."
#6: Don't refer to a character more than one way in the same scene. If it's Mr. Jumbles at the beginning of the scene, don't call him "Howie" (in your speaker attributions) at the end of the scene. Another character can call him Howie, though.
# 7: Punctuation: Use ellipses to indicate gaps in conversation, or a character trailing off into thought. Use em dashes (dash dash or the looooong dash) to indicate that a character has been interrupted.
Ellipsis: "Oh, I don't know. I was a pretty thing, once . . . " Harriet's eyes closed with the memory.
Em Dash: "We'll just see about that! If you think I'm gonna--"
"Just shut up, will you, Hank? I'm sick of your bellyachin'."
# 8: Don't forget to paragraph your dialogue--a new paragraph for each speaker.
KEY THOUGHT: If your dialogue doesn't work once you've cut adverbs and emotional explanations (remember--emotions are okay as long as you're showing and not telling in your speaker attributions), you need to strengthen your dialogue. Let the characters' WORDS show the emotion. You, the writer, shouldn't have to explain everything.
Had enough? Hold on, there's more:
# 9: Read your dialogue out loud. Most dialogue is too formal (Unless you're writing about formal people in a bygone era.) If you're tempted to "loosen up" your dialogue after you read it aloud, give into the temptation.
# 10: Real people use contractions, they contradict each other, they use run on sentences. Go to it, with discretion.
# 11 (And this is a pet peeve of mine): Don't use exposition in your dialogue if the characters have no real reason to share it. I read a thriller the other day, and a guy was saying, "Yes, Tom, I know we're marooned on this island that's about 24 square miles with only two access roads." Enough already! Didn't Tom know where they were?
# 12: Don't write "on the nose." Don't let every conversational ping be answered by a corresponding pong. Example: (forgive my lack of paragraphing, but I'm trying to conserve space.) This isn't brilliant prose, but I trust you get the idea.
"Susie's having a baby." "Boy or girl?" "She doesn't know. Doesn't want to know." "I'd want to know, wouldn't you?"
That's blah. Try it like this: "Susie's having a baby." "Boy or girl?" "She doesn't know. Doesn't want to know." "I'm over her, really. "
Ah . . . now that's an interesting wrinkle. :-)