One mistake new writers often make is devaluing dialogue. They think that the story is in the setting, the scene descriptions, etc., and dialogue is simply a placeholder, a means to an end. The opposite is much closer to the truth. Dialogue can include setting information, characterization, etc. Dialogue can move a story and make it real in ways no other element can really accomplish. Dialogue lets you show rather than tell. When characters speak and act/react, they become real to the reader. Dialogue builds tension and drama and furthers the plot. Dialogue reveals character through what’s said, or what isn’t said. And dialogue breaks up a story and helps it flow. A good rule of thumb is that dialogue needs to begin fairly quickly into a story, say by the bottom of the first page in a longer piece. So let’s explore it to see how it does all these wonderful things (and even makes toast!).
First off, what is it? Dialogue is a verbal exchange between characters. (A monologue occurs when one character speaks to her/himself or addresses the audience, which, in playwriting, is called an aside.) What is the purpose of dialogue? Here’s the kicker, because dialogue is a Jack of All Trades. The main purpose fledgling writers see for dialogue is delivering information, either about a character or a scene, basically to propel the plot forward in an explicative sense. Let’s examine that. I challenge you to find any random book or short story (preferably a good one). Pick a page and read the dialogue. How many lines of dialogue do you see that actually explicate the plot or setting or even character descriptions? Not many. (Probably more about character descriptions or setting and none or very few about plot.) Why is that? Well, because it’s boring and clunky to read. Imagine reading a horror story and seeing a character say, “Gosh, don’t go into that abandoned house, Maurice; I heard that it’s haunted by the ghost of a murder victim.” Even something as simple as sharing a character’s name in dialogue can be clunky. Think about how many times, in real life, we address people we know by their names. Not that often unless there’s some extenuating circumstance. The reader sees these kinds of information dumps as lazy and even insulting. The writer is saying that s/he doesn’t trust the reader enough to pick up on any subtler clues or just doesn’t know how to share this info in a smoother way.
So dialogue needs to give information to the reader without actually explicitly stating it. Dialogue should also perform several tasks simultaneously, and if it doesn’t, it needs to be cut or revised (because it’s clunky, boring, and taking up space). Probably the biggest thing dialogue does is characterize the speaker. This can be through speech patterns, accents, word choice, or all sorts of ways. It should share some information about plot, setting, character, etc. but not explicitly. Let us not forget the importance of mystery and allowing the reader to play the game of figuring things out for themselves. Think about it like this: imagine having a conversation with someone who restates obvious ideas and information. Soon, you will begin to think this person is mentally deficient. Another danger of poorly constructed dialogue is the “tennis match” effect. I like to think of this as dialogue that gets away from the writer. It goes back and forth between characters without actually accomplishing anything. Here’s an example:
“Hey, Jill,” Del said, smiling.
“Hey, Del,” Jill replied, smiling back. “How are you?”
“I’m good. How are you?” Del asked.
“I’m okay. I’m just a little worried that I’m an alien,” Jill said nervously.
“I don’t think you’re an alien. I just think you need to eat more fruit,” Del said, patting her on the head.
Much of this could be cut because it accomplishes so little and is clunky. Also, the dialogue is mostly unconnected to a scene; there aren’t a lot of physical descriptions to really round out the scene. Here’s a better version:
“Hey.” Jill looked up from her desk to see Del approach across the faded carpet. “So, um, how are you?” The concern in Del’s eyes was a comfort to Jill.
“I, um…” Jill looked around. No one else in the office seemed to be paying attention. “I think, you know.” She laughed and looked into Del’s eyes. “I’m a little worried that I’m an alien.”
Del laughed. “I don’t think you’re an alien.” She put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder and squeezed. “You just need to eat more fruit.”
Of course, on the flipside we have the monologue. This occurs when a character goes on and on, usually dumping info of some type. It’s unrealistic because if a person monologued like this for realz, we’d all turn and walk away from them.
One of the real keys, here, is the idea of economy. When writing dialogue, don’t start at the beginning. Start where something important is said. And end the same way.
(But dialogue can relate conflict without it being an info dump. This is because conflict reflects some fairly broad-stroke emotions, and it’s easy to relate big emotions through dialogue without boring the reader. This is good, because without these kinds of emotions, dialogue can end up being pretty boring and seem unfocused. )
Dialogue should also flow. There are all sorts of tricks to help write believable dialogue and only a few of them border on misdemeanors. But the thing to realize about realistic dialogue is that it isn’t. We are boring and often annoying when we talk. Really. Think about it. We speak in incomplete sentences all the time. We make inside jokes and half-references that would confuse most readers. We pause and stumble, stutter and make all sorts of mistakes when we speak, and we communicate nonverbally much more than we realize. The key to writing good, believable dialogue isn’t so much about capturing real conversations as cleaning them up, giving them some structure and more pleasing cadences, while implying realism enough to fool the reader without annoying them. This is tricky, because this is only a little piece of what dialogue requires.
Let’s talk about identifiers. Most writers agree on this: the purpose of an identifier (s/he said) is to identify who is talking. That’s it. Identifiers shouldn’t add any more information to the mix. Identifiers, also, become practically invisible, in the way a period does. So that means don’t get fancy. Identifiers that stop the reader slow down dialogue, and the pacing and rhythm of dialogue is so important that this is a real no-no.
So when do we use dialogue? Getting characters moving and interacting, specifically talking, is pretty much the best way to give readers a feel for who the characters are. And dialogue tends to be interesting to read, especially if it’s well-done, not only because it tends to characterize and give info, but because dialogue can really help with pacing (it’s a nice respite from descriptions). Dialogue can share a lot of information, but something you might’ve realized with all this talk of subtlety is that it takes a while to get things across when you’re avoiding info dumps. Explication is quick, but playing out ideas in scene, especially dialogue, can take a while.
Some warnings: phonetic spellings can be a good characterization device but they can also annoy the hell out of people. Theoretically, if you craft your character’s diction well enough, the accent should be apparent without all that fancy spelling, or misspelling. Basically, less is more. This is true of accents or vocal tics. (My overly elaborate example: I had a playwriting class with a guy who wrote a 2-page phonetic monologue from the POV of a schizophrenic stutterer. The prof. made the guy read the thing aloud to us. It was torture, and by the end of it, we all understood several things completely. He had captured the tone and milieu of the character, sure, but it was also interminable.) Vocal tics like a stutter or an accent can do a lot of work, but if overdone, they can also come off as forced.
Having said this, characters should be differentiated through dialogue. A child speaks differently from an elderly person. A southerner speaks differently from a northerner. Again, if handled well, these differences, not only in cadence, but in word choice, can be extremely effective. (Also, watch out for clichés!)