If you’ve ever interviewed someone for an article, you’ve no doubt heard the advice to steer clear of questions where your subject can give a simple yes or no answer. I think that by and large, the same is true for good dialogue. If one character does ask a yes/no question, use the other character’s rejoinder to propel the story forward by revealing a bit of crucial story info, raising the tension/conflict level or even deliberately throwing in a red herring of some type. Thus, if one character asks, “Are you ready to go?” you can manage the reader’s reaction by showcasing the story goal (“Good Lord, I’ve been trying to get into that school for years!”), adding tension (“What do you care? I’ve been waiting on you for an hour.”) or giving opposite info (“Sure. Sure. I can’t wait to meet your mother-in-law.”)
As Stephen King says in On Writing, the writer who bends over backward to tell the reader how a character says his lines is guilty of a “Swiftie–” after Tom Swift who added adverbial (LY!) attributions to his dialogue. So instead of he replied, she gasped, he smiled, she expostulated, he objected, she jerked out (my favorite!), if you attribute you dialogue, use a simple “said.” The word becomes invisible and only identifies the speaker. Using “ly” and other formal words to tell us how the character said something sounds silly to a reader. Simply put, it’s lazy. Instead of, “He said angrily,” show us how anger plays out in body language or the dialogue itself. ” ‘Nuff SAID.
If your dialogue contains elements of surprise, it will pique reader interest and move the story. Consider this passage from Loren Estleman’s Gas City:
“You married a saint.”
“She was a blowtop. She threw a skillet at me once.”
“I’d have thought she’d be more original.”
“It seemed inspired at the time. I earned it, I guess. I was never much in the husband department.”
These lines could’ve easily been hum-drum, but the writer gives crucial info and creates dialogue which is unexpected in some way. Use your dialogue in the same way and it will soon be sizzling hot–and leave your readers begging for more.