What’s the difference between dialogue and conversation? In creative writing, dialogue may only be a conversational exchange between two or more people, but it’s got to have purpose, otherwise it’s just chat. Conversation is the way people talk; dialogue contributes to the plot. Dialogue must move the story on, by revealing something about the characters or the plot. Good dialogue is the mark of a fine writer; forced and clunky dialogue betrays the bad.
Alfred Hitchcock said that a good story was ‘life, with the dull parts taken out’ and this definitely applies to dialogue. It isn’t about reproducing real speech; that would be pretty tedious. It should read like real speech, but it’s really just an impression of it. Try eavesdropping on conversations while you’re waiting for the bus, or in the doctor’s waiting room. People interrupt; they talk over each other, with many repetitions of ‘er’ and ‘um’ and non-sequitors that don’t have anything to do with the current topic. They ask questions that don’t get answered. They aren’t even listening to each other half the time; they’re waiting for a break in the chatter so they can get their word in. A transcript would be very boring to read.
So how do we achieve this level of sophistication?
Cut the chat – Dialogue shouldn’t just to pass the time of day. Every word must count. It should set the scene, advance the action, give insight into your characters motivation, remind the reader and foreshadow the future. Good dialogue should be doing several things at once so get rid of those unnecessary words that don’t reveal something about a character or drive the plot forward.
Explanation – Use dialogue to explain something that would otherwise not be known, or would take several paragraphs of narrative to describe. Not to be confused with exposition…
Exposition – Cramming too much information into one piece of dialogue in an effort to explain several plot points always sounds forced. And beware of characters saying things that the others would already know – ‘Hello John, how’s Sylvia, your wife?’ – Your characters know and interact with each other and shouldn’t be explaining simple relationships and actions to someone who would already have that information.
Foreshadowing – Not too tricky, this one. A throwaway line is all it takes to set up a future scene or revelation. For example – a character sympathises with a friend who sniffs constantly, thinking they’re suffering with a cold; actually the sniffer has a coke habit which is revealed much later on.
Technical information overload – These days readers take a lot of technical stuff for granted; they don’t need to have the workings of the matter transporter or the overhead cam explained at great length (unless they’re writing a car maintenance book). In a similar vein, be wary of using words or phrases that are too industry-specific – the reader will soon feel alienated if they don’t understand what you’re in raptures about.
Instantly recognisable – Give each major character a unique voice; a verbal mannerism, repetition or stock phrase so readers can distinguish them without a tag. But don’t overdo it. A character constantly speaking in an impenetrable dialect will soon become tiresome. Practice writing dialogue that conveys a character’s traits, the one’s that can’t be seen or described. Anger, fear, stupidity, recklessness, serenity, cruelty, happiness – they’re all invisible. Try expressing the cynicism of the old hand who’s seen it all, or the naiveté of the gullible princess in dialogue. Then try using the staccato barking of someone under extreme duress or the languid speech patterns of the perpetually laid-back; they should be completely different.
Read it aloud – If you can bear it, reading your story out loud will expose any clunky bits of dialogue. I have a nifty bit of software on my computer that reads my work aloud – oddly mechanical and rather amusing, but it serves its purpose. These days I read my stories out on local community radio – which makes me practice all the more.
Would they say that? Now? – Would your characters really stop to comment on the change in the weather or proximity of the axe-murderer, if they were being hotly pursued?
Tags – Good dialogue is easy to follow; who’s speaking to whom should be obvious. Speech tags are helpful in a page full of dialogue, but again, don’t overdo it. Readers ignore tags a lot of the time, just skimming over them, so trying to find lots of alternatives to the standard he said/she said can be counter-productive, with readers focussing more on the tags than on your excellent dialogue. Put the thesaurus away. Tags have their place, but remember the advice about showing, not telling: the narrative and dialogue should convey the speaker’s feelings not the tag.