Dialogue is stylised speech, which is heightened, condensed, and shaped. Writers who are naturally good at dialogue also tend to be excellent, empathetic listeners, and can detect what people are really thinking and feeling beneath their words. However, if dialogue is simply transcribed from real-life conversations, it rarely works. A writer can take inspiration from what they hear in the street, but it should be shaped in a way to fit the character, or to reveal that character, and to move the story forward.
Dialogue is not simply people talking. It should have some conflict or lively substance to it. A bit of juice! Two people talking pleasantly and aimlessly can get boring very quickly. Your characters don’t need to have melodramatic screaming matches with each other all the time; conflict will arise when characters have conflicting motivations.
Cut the boring and repetitive parts of the dialogue.
Here is a standard exchange between a young boy and an old man:
“So, who gave this to you?”
“Oh, it was Martin. The owner of the restaurant. He gave it to me earlier.”
“Oh, really? Did he? Well then, I must thank him for that.”
“No, don’t worry about it. I’ve already thanked him, actually,” the boy said. “You don’t need to go and thank him as well. It’s really not necessary.”
“Well, I’d still like to anyway. I’ll give him the belly meat of a big fish, just to say thanks,” the old man said. “Has he given us a food basket like this more than once?”
“Erm. Yes, I think so. I can’t really remember.”
Here’s how Hemingway wrote it:
“Who gave this to you?”
“Martin. The owner.”
“I must thank him.”
“I thanked him already,” the boy said. “You don’t need to thank him.”
“I’ll give him the belly meat of a big fish,” the old man said. “Has he done this for us more than once?”
“I think so.”
Over the length of a full novel, Hemingway’s dialogue will keep the story moving, while the first example will start to drag. The first example is also harder to imagine – the reader could get lost in the clumsy dialogue and have a much harder time picturing the scene. Hemingway’s dialogue is particularly terse. You might not write with such a minimalistic and deceptively simple style. But something can be learned from such precision, condensing, and removing of excess words and phrases, resulting in dialogue that flows and compels us to read on.
Some beginner writers produce great sections of witty, interesting dialogue, but unfortunately the good writing fails because it doesn’t take us forward. We don’t learn anything new, and the story isn’t advanced. If this goes on for several pages, we might put the book down. This is often a problem if you don’t outline your novel.
“That reminds me of something I heard recently…”
The novel is flexible, you can include philosophical thoughts and considerations, but it is a mistake to have a character utter them at a random moment, especially if it’s inconsistent with that character. The writer John Updike took this further: “Don’t make your characters intellectuals.” He advised writing about ordinary people in an unusual way, or putting them in unusual circumstances. Your characters don’t need to explicitly express your views. Your views will come through anyway, in the story you choose to tell and how you tell it.
Another common mistake for beginner writers is that all the characters sound the same, and they all sound like the author. This is not resolved by rewriting the weak dialogue so that the characters sound a bit different from one another. The problem usually lies deeper. You have to go back and clarify who each character really is and what they want from the scene, and how they will try to get it through this section of dialogue.
Where in the world…?
Develop the dialogue with action or an interesting setting. The dialogue will not work if it seems to be spoken in a vacuum and the reader forgets where we are, why the characters are there, and what they are doing. Ground the reader with your setting and carefully selected sensory information that help bring it to life.
“I can’t believe it!” she said disbelievingly.
‘He said’ and ‘she said’ are very useful phrases for a writer, and most adverbs in dialogue tags are not needed. Your dialogue should be good enough that the reader doesn’t need to be told how somebody said something. Writers who don’t yet trust themselves to tell the story will often try to explain everything to the reader with things such as adverbs in speech tags. Trust your reader to get all your subtleties, and trust your skills as a writer.