Dialogue is a funny thing. Most often I hear people advise to make it sound real. We don’t want stiff or formal in speech.
“It is a nice day today. Don’t you think so?”
“Yes, I do.”
But the opposite of stilted dialogue is not perfect dialogue. Instead, the opposite is a kind of realistic vernacular that is uncomfortable to read.
Jenny mumbles something unintelligible.
“Oh, I meant to tell you…”
“What?” Greg asks.
Jenny looks up distractedly. “Um…er…crap, I forgot.”
Unfortunately, that last one actually happens to me. Guess which character I am? Mmm hmm.
It’s not stiff or formal, but it’s still not good. That was my problem when I started writing. I would get so involved in the scene in my head that it would play out like real life. And I would justify it that way, too. Good dialogue in fiction is this happy medium. I can’t say I’ve mastered it lately, but the way I improved is to read a lot of dialogue. Not just read it, take it apart.
She looks up. “Did you happen to find anything in your car?”
“What should I have found?” Greg asked, dangling a slinky pair of panties from his finger.
This is the kind of dialogue that is common in books. We jump from the intro straight into an inciting incident. Whether she would normally answer back a greeting in real life, we don’t really care.
Then a question is answered with a question. Not like this always has to happen or anything, but a simple yes or no is not usually going to suffice. Unless you’re trying to make a point that the answeree is stoic, but the point is it all tells the story. Every line should move the story forward and give us a clue to the character.
Recently I read Miranda Neville’s The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton and I loved it! What a perfect example of fantastic dialogue. SO witty.
One of the downsides of learning all this story structure stuff is that I automatically pick things out of books. Ah, look, establishing empathy. There’s the call to action. Yes, the point of no return! But in this book I was so amused by their interplay that I barely noticed any of that writerly setup until it snuck up on me. It was really quite masterful and I highly recommend it.
Do you have any dialogue tricks I can steal and use for my own? Have you read a book recently with fabulous or witty dialogue?