I’ve never been 100% confident in my ability to write dialogue. It’s something I’ve been paying close attention to in my novel. I have to get it right, because dialogue is the roofbeam that keeps this madhouse from collapsing in on itself. The dialogue is what brings the characters of your story to life, and any time there is a disconnect between the reader and your characters, you’ve got a serious problem. It’s an aspect of writing fiction that is easy to learn but so hard to master. It looks simple, but subtlety is required in order to achieve excellence. The writer of great dialogue is perceptive, not just of the conversational habits of real people, but of the craft of storytelling. They have to bridge the gap between the real world and the one on the page, all the while being able to keep each one at an arm’s length away from the manuscript.
What I mean by that is that, to me, the secret to writing effectual dialogue is maintaining balance. You don’t want it to be so realistic that it becomes hard to follow, but you also don’t want it to become so contrived that it feels like you’ve lifted the lines from a bad soap opera. Good dialogue is believable, but also sharp and friendly to readers of the medium of fiction. There’s a reason that news articles and the like will often re-word what an interviewee says, making the subject’s sentences neater and more accessible. They remove repeated words and fill in missing ones to achieve that all-important quality of dialogue: flow. The way we talk in everyday life is often jumbled and rough, and in the medium of drama we are looking to grip people’s attention with speech that is crisp and polished. My favorite example of this kind of excellence is the Ernest Hemingway short story The Killers. Here’s a short extract:
“What’s he going to do?”
“They’ll kill him.”
“I guess they will.”
“He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago.”
“I guess so,” said Nick.
“It’s a hell of a thing.”
“It’s an awful thing,” Nick said.
As you can see, the dialogue is snappy- each sentence has a way of flowing into the next. There is a rhythm that exists throughout the scene. And, Hemingway has achieved the kind of balance I mentioned earlier. He has captured the essence of how real people speak, rather than replicating it verbatim.
When I took classes in screenwriting at university, my professor reiterated that dialogue should be used only when absolutely necessary. If you can show what’s happening without speech, then do that. Our professors would go through our screenplays and pick out certain lines of dialogue.
“Is this really necessary?” they would say. We were shown the beginning of There Will Be Blood as an example of the power of omitting speech. It would have only diminished the effect of the scene if they had Daniel Day-Lewis exclaim “I fell down a pit mine and done me leg in!”
The same lessons hold true for writing fiction. A sense of balance is yet again required. You don’t want too much of your narrative exposition to come in the form of spoken dialogue, because then the characters will seem less believable. They will seem like mouthpieces for the events of the story, which will then indicate to the reader that you don’t think much of their intelligence. Nothing breaks immersion more than when information is forced into a character’s dialogue. For example, if a character is being cornered by a creepy janitor carrying an Arkansas Toothpick, said victim isn’t going to waste their breath going “Ah, so it was you all along. You must have seen Little Curtis walking home from school and snatched him while no one was looking!” when really they would be using their lungs to call for help.
But of course, you don’t want to have too little dialogue that your story becomes vague and boring. What dialogue you include should not be inconsequential. It should be striking and colorful. So once again, a sense of balance is needed- don’t be too vague, and don’t include too much. And if you get it just right, you’ll hopefully have written a scene that readers find compelling.