Dialogue is a vital tool of effective storytelling. Since verbal communication is something we engage in every day, one might think we simply have to transpose those experiences onto paper and we’re done. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of what we speak and hear on a daily basis is inane, unfocused, repetitive. Dialogue in a work of fiction must be just the opposite — intentional, crisp, and to the point. The reader must “hear” it as if real people were talking even though the writer has controlled every word in order to advance the story. How do we do it? By following a few basic rules.
Rule number one: every interaction between your characters must have a purpose. No idle chatter. Use dialogue to illuminate a character’s personality and thought processes, to define how your characters relate to one another, to create conflict and tension, or to introduce important information that moves the plot along. The specific content and style of what your characters say will rise out of your knowledge of them and how they would react in a particular situation. Sometimes it may even seem as if the words are coming from their mouths instead of your fingers. However, always remember that you are the puppet master. Whatever is said, it must fit into your overarching plan for the story.
“Listen” to your dialogue as you write it. Written conversation should mimic the ebb and flow of real-life conversation while staying focused on the function it is meant to perform. You have license to abandon the strict rules of grammar in writing dialogue. Incomplete sentences, hanging thoughts, judicious use of dialect or slang — all of these can be used to good effect in dialogue. If what is being said doesn’t ring true to your mental ear, fix it until it does.
Pace your dialogue. Pages of unbroken dialogue can pull the reader out of the story and cause confusion and boredom. There are ways to avoid this. For example, if your character needs to tell a long complicated story to his or her dialogue partner, begin with dialogue, then switch to narrative for part or the remainder of what needs to be revealed. Another trick is to break up long stretches of dialogue with small bits of “stage action.” Let the speaker pause to gather his thoughts or indulge a nervous habit. Or give him something to do that telegraphs how he feels about the conversation. Or insert a small bit of narrative that describes the hearer’s (point of view character’s) reaction to what is being said. A warning, however. Too much choppiness can destroy the flow of the conversation and disengage the reader. Use your own inner ear to decide the right balance.
A word about dialogue tags — the he said, she said identifiers that tell the reader who is talking. Additional tags such as she asked, she commented, she stuttered, she blustered, she yelled are only preferable to the old standby on occasion. Most people aren’t even aware of the “said” tag, and that’s the way you want to keep it in order not to draw your reader’s attention away from the speaker. The same is true of descriptive adverbs attached to the tag. One of the most important rules of fiction writing is to show rather than tell what you want the reader to know. This applies to dialogue as well as narrative. Write it in such a way that the reader knows the speaker is angry, frustrated, sad — you supply the emotion — without you having to point it out. This is not always possible, and even the best and most famous authors use these descriptors as well as alternative tags. The trick is to use them only when you are certain they advance the mood of the conversation, thus lending them more weight than if you used them every time someone spoke.
Dialogue is fun to write. It allows you to get deep inside your characters’ heads and find out what makes them tick. The more you know about them, the more the possibilities open up for you to enhance your plot and develop the nitty-gritty details that propel the story to its exciting conclusion.