First, let’s talk about dialogue tags. Keep them simple with a he-said-she-said format. You don’t need any of the following dialogue tags: Sara agreed, Tom cried, Amy elaborated, Jessica interrupted.
If Sara agrees with something, here’s how that should go:
“What should we do this weekend?” Sara asked.
“Let’s check out that new club,” Bethany said.
“Cool. Maybe Kevin will show up.”
In the third graph, we know that Sara has agreed with Bethany because of what she has said. Also, please make note that the third line of dialogue doesn’t even need a dialogue tag because we know Sara is responding.
If Tom is upset enough to cry out, here’s how that should go:
“I’m leaving you,” Alicia said. She balanced the baby on her hip and reached for her coat.
“What?” Jeff moved toward her. “You can’t do this. You can’t take my kid!”
We can tell by Jeff’s statement that he’s unhappy with what Alicia is about to do. Also, notice that we don’t even need a dialogue tag in the second line. Jeff is performing an action that’s placed right in the middle of the dialogue. We know that he is the one speaking. The author could place Jeff’s action before or after the dialogue tag for the same effect, but it works nicely in the middle to create a natural pause.
If Jessica is an interrupting cow, then here’s how that should go:
“Look,” Stan said, “I’ve gotta go to Vegas with the guys this weekend or—”
“But it’s our anniversary!” Jessica threw down her glass, and shards scattered across the kitchen floor.
In a previous NaNoWriMo blog post, I wrote about why adverbs are bad for your writing. They are annoying in dialogue tags because they are a waste of time. Here’s an example: “I can’t take this any more!” Gwen said sharply to her husband. Sharply is the adverb in the dialogue tag. As a reader, I don’t need the word “sharply” to tell me that Gwen is frustrated or angry, I can tell by what she has said.
Now let’s talk about the actual dialogue: Ask yourself if your dialogue sounds real. Read it out loud. Would people actually say what you have written? Remember that people don’t usually speak formally, unless your character is a stodgy scientist or professor.
Feel free to break the rules:
A character with less education might say, “Me and Jo are headed to town.” The correct grammar would be Jo and I, but in dialogue, it doesn’t matter.