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This is a dialogue from a short story I'm writing:

Finally, a log caught fire, followed by the rest. And in no time Paola and I had a display of dancing flames before us, their warmth entering every pore of our skin.

"You're pretty good." Paola looked genuinely impressed.

"I used to do it a lot," I explained, "when I was a kid."

"I see. I think it's nice—having a skill."

"Building a fire isn't a very useful one."

"It's still nice, though." Paola gazed thoughtfully at the flames, as though trying to find a hidden meaning in their glow. "A skill that has nothing to do with money. I think it's more simple, more pure. And you do it just because you enjoy it. Sometimes we forget to do things just for the sheer pleasure of it."

"Um. Never thought of it that way . . ." I was surprised. Paola had suddenly become more talkative. That's when I realized I had no idea what was crossing her mind. I might as well have been peering into the murky water of a swamp.

Once the fire died down a bit, we took out the grill net and started working on the barbecue. Not that there was a lot to prepare. The things we bought at the supermarket—the chicken pieces, the diced beef, the sausages, the pepper and onions—were already seasoned. All we had to do was to slide them onto the skewers and throw them on the grill.

While we waited for the meat to cook, we sat side by side, drinking the beers we brought along. It was already dark, and the only light on the beach was our improvised fire. Now and then, a piece of wood would fall off, sending millions of sparks around. Short-lived fireflies fluttering under a darkened sky.

"Uh, Paola?" This was the best moment to bring it up. "Can I ask you something?"

Paola held her can in mid-air. "Sure."

"Why did you decide to come? I mean, even though the rest backed out—including Natalia. She's the only one in the group you know, isn't she? Please don't take it in a bad way. I'm just curious."

"You think it's weird?"

"Well . . . just a little bit. We don't know each other after all."

"I figured you wouldn't try anything funny. Oh, are you that kind of guy? I warn you, if you try something I'll chop your dick off and feed it to the fish."

"Wow," I said, "no need for that. You just killed a week's worth of boners with that one."

We both laughed. I could feel the atmosphere relax, become warmer. And it wasn't just because of the fire.

Paola said, "Joking aside, I came to visit my mom."

"Your mom?"

Paola nodded. A drop of fat fell into the fire, creating a flame that illuminated the rocks nearby for a couple of seconds.

"Sorry," I said, "I don't follow."

"She disappeared long ago in the sea." Paola took a sip of her beer. "Not here, in Viña. I was eleven at the time. Mom was teaching me to swim when this huge wave came up and crashed against us. A really big one. The size of a skyscraper." A deep crease formed between her brows. "After that, I don't remember much—just that I was surrounded by this mess of water, panic, and bubbles. Then total darkness. When I woke up I was in a hospital bed. My father had rescued me. As for my mom . . . he couldn’t find her, nor could the rescue crew. She just vanished under that wave.”

I stared at Paola. I didn't know what to say. And I felt a simple “I'm sorry” wouldn't be enough, so I stayed quiet.

She continued, "Anyway, that’s why I’m here. Since I’m moving to Santiago after graduation, I wanted to visit the sea one last time, to say goodbye to Mom."

"But I don't understand,” I said. “Why here? You said the . . . the incident, happened in Viña."

"All the oceans are connected, you know? They are, in fact, a single mass of water that goes all over the globe. So, no matter where you drown, you immediately become part of that wholeness."

Does it sound stiff and formal at times? If so, how can I fix that?

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up vote 1 down vote accepted

A few points that got kinda stiff for me as a reader and as a writer were when you split a sentence with a dialogue tag.

For example,

"I used to do it a lot," I explained, "when I was a kid."

"Wow," I said, "no need for that.

However, the dialogue you split with action tags was fantastic.

"Uh, Paola?" This was the best moment to bring it up. "Can I ask you something?"

Among many others so well done.

A few points below sounded awkward.

She continued, "Anyway, that’s why I’m here.

Paola said, "Joking aside, I came to visit my mom."

Re-word those with a description of some sort and they'll fit right into your scene. Content-wise your dialogue felt natural, honestly. Not stiff in the slightest.

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