Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
Dialogue is pretty much my favorite thing about writing stories. Right up there with character development. And the brainstorming process. And writing the first chapter. And pretty much everything else about writing books.
We've talked on here about minimizing your dialogue tags—said, asked, replied—and using action beats instead to both clue the reader in on who is speaking and what is taking place while they speak.
So instead of:
"How do you not know this?" Palmer asks.
We can show our audience more by cutting the tag and showing action instead:
Palmer looks at them like they're stupid. "How do you not know this?"
What we haven't talked about yet on Go Teen Writers is using a beat to show the emotion or sound of the dialogue. Sometimes this technique is called "dialogue cues," but I think of them as emotion beats. Like you're showing the audience not just what's happening, but the emotion of the scene as well.
The easiest way to do this would be with adverbs:
"What do you mean?" he asked warily.
"I mean you're grounded," she said forcefully.
But adverbs are high on the no-no list of editors, so you need to find another way. I pulled three books off my shelf from different genres and with drastically different author voices so you can see how this plays out in a variety of stories:
This is an excellent dialogue directive because it not only tells us how he's speaking, but it's a true word picture to Alex's character as an ex-jock. I love that.
Here's another one of Jenny's that shows deep emotion:
"You knew I assumed you were proposing that night two years ago. I thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together." The old hurt lodged in her throat and made her words hoarse. "I can't do this right now, Matt."
Really great stuff. See how much better an emotion beat is there? The dialogue would lose something, in my opinion, if instead Jenny had chosen to tell us that the character is teary or that she's reaching for a Kleenex. This is great.
Here's one more that's similar to the previous example with Alex, only it's about fifty pages later.
"Just to review, we pretend to date for approximately one month. This time in June, I will propose to you somewhere public and slightly humiliating to us both." His voice was as expressionless as if discussing his preference in athletic socks. "In five months—a month before our wedding date—you and I will have a very amicable, very quiet separation. We will realize we both want different things and go our separate ways..."
Jenny's books are always popping with voice, and she carries that all the way through her emotion beats.
Now let's look at an example from historical fiction:
"But we have had it wrong, Mary." Mrs. Mimpurse drew near and spoke in hushed tones. "Miss Powell is marrying one of the Marlows to be sure. But not Roderick as we supposed. She is marrying Sir Henry himself."
I like this one a lot too. The dialogue is so clear to the reader's ears:
"Down, I say." She heard a man holler in false bravado. "Down!"
And since so many of your write fantasy, I pulled To Darkness Fled by Jill Williamson off my shelf as well:
"That is disgusting." Sparrow's voice cracked. "I hate this place. I hate it!"
Jill could have chosen so many action beats for dialogue like that, but I love how she chose emotion instead. Another Sparrow example:
"Your friends on Ice Island." Sparrow's raspy voice always sounded like he had a cold.
And I like in this last example how Jill combined action and emotion for the beat:
Achan met Sir Gavin's brown eyes and forced his voice to remain even, though his stomach clenched. "Of course."
Now it's your turn! Pull out your manuscript and either find a place where you've already marked the dialogue with an emotion beat, or switch out an action beat for an emotion instead. I'd love to see your examples below!