Dialogue should do a lot of things.
Not all at the same time, though more than one at once is a real win.
Dialogue is a really good tool: it’s not just chat between characters.
Be wary of banter dragging on!
What sort of things should dialogue do?
It should reveal something about the character speaking.
It should tell us something about the character within story, the plot-line, how it will advance, what the expectations for that character are.
It can explain things through exposition.
It should advance the story.
It has to be true to the character speaking it.
Dialogue is best when it feels natural, like the spoken word, with some imperfections, half-thoughts and interruptions thrown in.
That’s a lot of stuff!
How do we make dialogue achieve all or some of that?
For me, this is where the great advice of ‘just write bad stuff’ really comes in to its own.
I find that dialogue never comes out fully formed with the first words on the page. I write sketchily, getting ideas out, playing around and let it just sit there taking up the space it needs to until I can come back and make it better.
Most often we’ll know what we want to get across in a piece of dialogue, prompted by the action of the story. We’ll know what the character is feeling, how they are thinking, what they want to achieve by saying what we’re going to get them to say. Start with that. Get out the guts of it, the intent, the bare content.
Get the dialogue working as an exchange. Get the other character/s in the scene contributing, reacting and stating their case, getting across what they want. Start the conversation on the page.
Revealing something about character is done through how they would react in context of the scene, driven by their background and goals. Their personality, education, physical and emotional state will all affect the way they speak and what they want to say. What are they trying to achieve with their dialogue?
Does the dialogue need to tell us where we are going with the story? Is it a character explaining something to the reader as well as stating something in context of the story?
We can get a feel for how people speak by listening to them. That sounds bloody obvious I know. But a lot of the time we’re busy trying to pick up on the message within the spoken word and don’t really listen to the way it’s spoken. As writers we can learn a lot about writing by listening.
We can learn from people in the world around us or from people on the page, screen, stage and radio. Learn from other writers. Why wouldn’t we?
And remember: write bad stuff! Never expect it to be perfect as soon as it hits the page.
Just get the ideas out, write down what you want to convey from that character at that place in the story. Just get the ideas down on the page.
Going back and sharpening dialogue is one of the best parts of rewriting.
In editing it can be less fun, as you rewrite, hone, tinker, refine and then decide that whole chunks need to go.
But that’s in the future. For now, just start the conversation on the page.