When we read, what we really want is human speech--yelling, chatting, laughing, screaming. The reader's heart yearns for companionship and adrenaline.
If you can bamboozle the reader into the fictive dream and give them fantastic conversation within it, they'll never want to leave.
Good dialogue can be achieved by following some basic rules. Excellent, grab'em-by-the-pituitary-gland-and-never-let-go dialogue takes preparation.
Here are the basic rules:
- Dialogue needs to be less formal than narration, even when it is between formal adults. Vocabulary should reflect spoken vocabulary, which is about one fifth of a character's reading vocabulary. You will not make your character sound dumb by having them use normal words. Overly formal dialogue with sentences too complete and words beyond the natural spoken vocabulary level of the type of character is the most common dialogue mistake by beginning writers.
- Reread lines of dialogue out loud and see if they sound natural. Use incomplete sentences, pauses, vague terms, extreme specifics and poor grammar where it is obvious that they would be used in real speech. But within reason! Dialogue must first and foremost be familiar and real to the reader.
- Keep dialogue lines short. Most dialogue should be one sentence or less. Occasionally use two or three short sentences max unless your point is that the character is going on and on. And even then be cautious. Who wants to read in detail about a character giving a lecture?
- Dialogue should be more coherent and more concise than real speech. But remember "all things in moderation."
- Speech differences, slang and accents can be hinted at but do not change every word or sentence to match the difference or your text will become unreadable. Mark Twain was an incredible linguist and even so many readers have a very hard time deciphering his dialogue. Don't try this at home, folks.
- Avoid obvious phrases of greetings and pleasantries unless you're emphasizing them to develop cultural setting (and even then do so sparingly). If two characters meet and each says "Hello, how are you?" hint that they did so in narration. Don't spell it out unless you have a damn good reason.
- "Late in, early out" applies because conversations are essentially scenes. Enter the conversation as late as possible while still giving all necessary information and leave as early as possible. Don't drag the reader through extraneous scaffolding.
- No "as you know, John" please! Do not have a character tell another character something both should logically know already simply in order to tell it to the reader. There are better ways to get facts across.
- And along with that last, don't "info dump" in dialogue. Work it in. Yes, "work" is the operative verb here. It is hard but it can be done. Information contained in dialogue must be primarily that which is natural for one character to tell another, not things the reader needs to know. Information for the reader can be contained in narration, setting and most importantly the behavior of characters.
- A note on tags: Mostly use the word "said." This is the exception to the rule you learned in high school language arts about using varied vocabulary and the most specific verb possible. The word "said" is almost invisible. Readers will simply understand who said something. Use other tags such as "stated," "argued," "cried" sparingly and only with good reason.
- A note on not using tags at all: In moderation, the tags can be cut altogether in some modern styles, especially in two-way conversations. As a general rule, tag the first lines of each character and then allow them to switch off. However, don't create strings of tag-less dialogue more than four switch-offs long. It forces readers to calculate rather than read. Try reading the dialogue aloud in a monotone and see if you would be confused about who is talking. The point is not to make the reader work. Readers are supposed to be in the fictive dream. Period.
- A note on actions as tags: An even more advanced trick is to do away with standard tags involving "said" or an equivalent and use action and expression sentences instead. The key is to leave no doubt who is speaking without actually saying it. Example: She ducked her head, looking at him out of the corner of her left eye. "I don't know. Do you think we should?" He coughed and spots of pink bloomed on his neck. "I... I..."
- On that note, consider the narration sprinkled in with the dialogue to be part of the dialogue itself. There have been some experiments with "dry dialogue," meaning using only the actual spoken lines without any indication of the character's actions or expressions. Usually these experiments also rely on a minimum of tag lines and they fail spectacularly. I'm not saying don't experiment, but gaining readers through this kind of experiment is equivalent to winning the lottery. It's extremely unlikely but writers do it anyway because experimenting is how everything good got invented. When you're done experimenting and ready to write a story, make sure your dialogue includes lines of action. It is best if something is happening in the plot while the characters are speaking. But if your characters must have a conversation in which they are mostly just sitting there, you still need actions and the more sedentary the characters are the more detailed the actions need to be. Show the minute motions of hands, a flicker of emotion or picture what your character is reaching for. Watch people talk in real life. Very few people just sit motionless while they talk and if they did we would definitely notice it and put that in narration.
- Use the time warp. Finally, there is a strange sort of time warp that happens in fictional dialogue. Usually it means time passes more quickly in the story than the lines of dialogue can account for. Let's say ten minutes passes in your fictional world while your characters have a leisurely conversation. That conversation will probably only be four to five dialogue lines long. You then assert that ten minutes passed and the reader will feel like ten minutes really did pass. The exception would be if there is extreme tension, such as characters waiting for a timed bomb to explode in their faces. In that case a lot more than four or five dialogue lines will be noted. It has to do with the attention to detail in a suspenseful situation. Subconsciously readers know that in a scene without life-and-death tension you aren't reporting every motion or word spoken to them. They expect you to tell only the important parts. But in a scene in which utter disaster and/or death is imminent, you are expected to tell much more. Doing that well is a matter of maintaining tension, however, and that's another post entirely.
That's how you write tolerably good dialogue. But if you want to write sizzling, page-burner dialogue, you'll need more and the ingredients are difficult to put into hard and fast rules. This is more about preparation of the writer than it is about a list of tips.
First, read a ton of the type of fiction you want to write and other types of fiction as well (for balance and perspective). Pay attention to the dialogue. When you really love some dialogue, stop and analyze it. Look at how long the dialogue lines are, what kind of phrases they use, if they use any complete sentences.
Think about the characters you most love in fiction and go through books, looking specifically at their lines of dialogue. Dialogue is much of what makes character. Observe how the character speaks. Is it consistent? Again, what types of phrases and sentence structures does the character you love use?
Take note of these things either in your brain or on paper and keep reading and noticing. In time, the simple act of paying attention will improve your writing.
Record conversations and listen to them. Today in the world of smart-phones this has never been easier. Record a family argument. Record a boring meeting. Record your friends hanging out and shooting the shit. Then transcribe some conversations. Write down EXACTLY word for word what was said. Include all the messy stuff, um's... repetitions, confusion. Notice how simple the vocabulary is and how incomplete the sentences are.
Then take those transcriptions and change the statements to make them as short as possible while still containing all the important information. Remove repetitions. Leave sentence fragments and a few important pauses that carry meaning. Clean up the grammar just enough to make it understandable. Do this for as many hours as possible. The awesomeness of your dialogue will be in direct proportion to how many hours of transcription you do.
Then before you sit down to write a scene of dialogue, sit back and imagine it. Close your eyes if necessary and play it like a movie in your head. At first this will not be easy. The better you know your characters and the emotional undercurrents going on at that moment in your plot, the easier it will be. But keep at it.
The first dialogues with new characters may need revision later, but don't worry about it. Do the best you can with your mind-movie in the beginning. Play it out.
Then write. If you can, let your mind hear the voice of the character as you write the line of dialogue. If your brain doesn't do that, reread the lines as yo go, imagining your character's voice and the expression on their face and on the faces of those listening. Get the emotion of the moment in your own head, even if it is hidden between the lines of a constrained setting or repressed by formal characters.
Finally, after you have written the dialogue go back over it in editing and read it aloud. Try reading it in a monotone and ensure that you still know who is supposed to be speaking by context, tags and word choice. Also read it with a semblance of the voices and emotion appropriate to the scene. Does it sound realistic? Do people of that type actually talk this way?
If the answer is "No, but I want them to talk this way," you need have a long talk with yourself about what your goals in writing are. If you want to create dialogue that will reach out and grab your readers and hold on with unbreakable tentacles, then you've got to face the fact that readers will read what puts them into the fictive dream. And that dream is broken when characters sound fake. No if's, and's or but's about it.
If the answer is "I don't know," go back to the beginning of the preparation. The problem may be that you don't have enough experience with people in whatever specific cultural, age or professional category you're writing about. Start specifically reading stories about people of the type your characters are. Analyze how they talk. Let it absorb into you. If possible, record some conversations involving people of the type you are writing about. Transcribe. Keep doing it and great dialogue will come. I promise.
This method works. You may have to modify bits of it to suit the way your own brain works, but in essence this is it. Dialogue is very particular. To be good, it has to follow some pretty strict rules. To be spectacular, it needs to make the reader forget they are reading and feel like they are in the conversation. That takes time, practice and quite a bit of intuition.
Best wishes and keep writing!