“How forcible are right words!” says Job ( 6:25). And nowhere are the right words more important than in writing dialogue. Strong dialogue moves your plot along as it reveals your characters’ hopes, dreams, tastes, prejudices, and views of the world. Here’s a recent example from one of my writing workshop students: “I could have been president of the Ladies League if my father was the senator.” Miss Madrigal snapped open her napkin and spread it over her ample lap. “I’d have been better at it, too,” she went on, loudly enough to be heard at the next table. “A thousand times better than that featherbrained Sally Arbuckle, I am sure. But that’s the way things work in this one horse town.” In this sample, the writer shows us Miss Madrigal’s aspirations and bitter disappointments through her unique diction, rhythm, and world view.
Notice, too, that the “beat”–the snapping of the napkin– shows us something about her emotional state, and eliminates the need for speaker attribution. Of course occasionally you’ll want to use attribution, especially when writing dialogue between three or more characters. That’s the time to use “said.”
Make your dialogue more interesting and avoid the back and forth “ping-pong” effect by occasionally allowing a question to go unanswered, by having one speaker change the subject or pose an unexpected question. Or let your character’s body language reveal his or her thoughts. Or let two people argue about something other than the real issue. For example, a couple may argue because one of them stayed out too late the night before. But the subtext is the mistrust and fear of abandonment that exists between them.
As you write dialogue, remember to let your characters’ words show us something about their view of the world, use beats to replace most attribution, and try revealing plot and character by what people don’t say.