smooth dialogue

How Do I Fix Clunky Dialogue?


Dear Editor…

A critiquer said the dialogue in my novel sounds “clunky.” How do I fix that?

I Don’t Hear It

Dear I Don’t Hear It..

Strong dialogue is inseparable from the narrative around it. If you’ve got a bunch of speaker tags like he said or Sam said stacked on top of each other on the page, the conversation can have a clunky, repetitive quality:

“I’m not going,” he said.
“You are, and you’re going to like it,” Jade said.
“They make me eat fish. I hate fish,” he replied, looking away. 

And if those are short blurts of dialogue, that repetitive quality can sound downright staccato. It could be that you need more variety in the structure, as with this revision of the above example:

“I’m not going,” he said.
“You are, and you’re going to like it,” Jade said.
He looked away. “They make me eat fish. I hate fish.” 

Notice that I dropped one of the dialogue tags. Sometimes writers overuse them. The narrative that surrounded the dialogue clarifies the speaker, so you don’t need “he replied.” But even better is surrounding your dialogue with richer, more revealing narrative makes the dialogue itself read more smoothly because that dialogue isn’t doing all the work. Check out this revision, which replaces the bland “looking away” action:

“I’m not going,” he said.
“You are, and you’re going to like it,” Jade said.
He sagged back into the couch.
“They make me eat fish. I hate fish.” 

Sagging into the couch feels defeated. That’s a richer and more specific expression of the character’s emotion than looking away, which could be deceit, disinterest, shame … who knows? And in that revision, the dialogue and the narration do equal amounts of work. So, for smoother dialogue: Vary your conversation’s structure and enrich the narrative surrounding your dialogue.  

Happy writing!
The Editor

The Editor, Deborah Halverson, has been editing books for over 25 years and specializes in Middle Grade/Young Adult fiction and nonfiction, New Adult fiction, and picture books. For her editorial guidance in making your manuscript ready for submission to agents and publishers or for self-publishing, click Editorial services. Learn more in her books: Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies and Writing New Adult Fiction.