Dialogue is a central part of nearly every piece of fiction. Although it’s possible to write a story that has no dialogue–I can think of at least one that I wrote ages ago and another that had only one line of dialogue–that’s the exception rather than the rule. The ability to handle dialogue is therefore a key skill for every fiction writer.
You’d think it would be easy. After all, most of us spend a fair bit of time talking. Humans are a noisy species. How hard could it be to translate everyday talk into story dialogue? But it can be tricky. Dialogue is not conversation. Dialogue is conversation that has been cleaned up and sharpened to a particular purpose.
Read that again: dialogue is not conversation. You will find some writers who say that it is, but even they understand the difference, if you read what they have to say on the subject. If you recorded a conversation, you’d find something like this:
“Have you decided who you’re voting for yet?”
“Hey, these cookies are really good, did you make them?”
“No, I bought them at the store last week. They were, you know, on sale.”
(cough) “Yeah, well, Smith is an idiot and Jones can’t be trusted. I was , umm, talking last week . . .”
“I thought Smith made a lot of sense, I mean, about the budget. His budget. You know.”
“Um, but, I think he’s an idiot. His police ideas, plan, whatever. Did you hear that? God! I’m going to have another of these. These are great.”
“No, I didn’t, but I liked what he was saying about, oh, here, take the whole bag. You know?”
“I just think he’s a, well, idiot. Moron. Whatever.”
This may be conversation but it’s not good dialogue. To turn it into good dialogue, we’d have to eliminate the repetition and the umms and the you knows and anything else that is polluting the stream of words. While the aim is to make the dialogue sound like real conversation, in fact the impression given to the reader is partly illusion. Art often works this way: one conveys the impression of reality, but in a more orderly and structured way than reality presents itself.
Dialogue plays several roles in a story. Principally, it helps define characters and it serves the plot. No dialogue that fails to do one or the other should survive the editing process. If it doesn’t serve the story, it doesn’t belong. In the above, the cookie content may be deadwood, although it could perhaps serve character development if incorporated carefully.
At the same time, dialogue is not usually the right place to deliver background to the reader. A common mistake of aspiring writers is to put exposition into their character’s mouths. This doesn’t work because usually characters end up explaining to each other things that all of them already know. And that’s generally unrealistic. If John already knows that Mary earned her Ph.D. last year, she probably wouldn’t tell him that she did.
The words spoken by the characters should convey their personalities and backgrounds, meaning that different characters should sound different. Dialect and different modes of speech help to define and distinguish characters. Some characters may be more prone to using sentence fragments, others may be very proper in their speech. Different slang terms can indicate the eras in which different characters grew up. Even what people say (as opposed to how they say it) can be important. For example, some characters may be very straightforward, while others may be evasive.
Far from being easy, dialogue is an art that takes some practice to develop. The good news is, it does get easier with practice.
Speech bubble image courtesy of ClipArts.co.