Imagine you are creating an everyday conversation of a fairly happy couple lunching at an outdoor cafe. The idea is to make it sound ordinary but still drop some clues about the problems looming just beyond the horizon in the plot. However, you tire of using the ubiquitous “said” after every sentence of dialog.
“How was your day?” she intones.
“The new client has made some unusual requests.” he articulates.
“They cannot be as strange as what Mr. Jones asked for, today.” she utters.
“How would you know?” he rejoins.
This couple already has deep problems beyond what the new client’s or Mr. Jones’ bizarre requests. They obviously find each other tedious. The unemotional sounding verbs to replace “said” trend to drip with boredom. So, try to add a little more feeling to the conversation and use words that are stronger.
“How was your day?” she queries.
“The new client has made some unusual requests.” he exclaims.
“They cannot be as strange as what Mr. Jones asked for.” she counters.
“How would you know?” he retorts.
Now the couple seems aggressive and combatant. However, that wasn’t really the idea. They are supposed to be a devoted couple, facing the challenges that the world throws at them as a united front. What could you do to add a little more empathy.
“How was your day?” she croons.
“The new client has made some unusual requests.” he murmurs.
“They cannot be as strange as what Mr. Jones asked for.” she cajoles.
“How would you know?” he implores.
So the the romantic way of speaking doesn’t exactly fit. There are many times when those everyday words “said, asked, replied” are the best choice. If it necessary to capture an undertone of meaning that is not evident in the actual dialog, you can throw is a few adverbs, “inquisitively” or adverbial phrases “with curiosity.”
Another way of adding dimension to conversation is to describe the visuals along with the sounds. What does curiosity look like in a face? Eyes wide open, a gaping mouth and you have just pictured surprise. Now, describing a face takes a lot longer than to write “he said in shock.” So, use this technique sparingly for emphasis.
Surprise is one of the seven basic emotions that according to psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen are supposed to be universal for humans. The others?
Anger – eyes pulled down, lips tightened
Fear – eyebrows raised, mouth stretched
Sadness – eyebrows and corner of slips both slanting downwards
Disgust – eyes squinting, nose wrinkled, top lip pulled up
Contempt – shown only by the lip being raised only on one side, also known as the sneer
Happiness – portrayed by eyes crinkled at the corners, and mouth turned up. If a person smiles using only the lips it appears fake, in essence, the evil smile.
However, most readers won’t necessarily be aware of the facial composition of the sinister smile. So don’t try to go too far visualizing conversations.