People talk. We’re always talking.
If you go anywhere, you’ll notice people constantly talking. Our age of social media is just another form of talk; texting and talking on our phones, reading on our phones, reading what people are talking to us about.
As an exercise, perhaps even a punishment, some writers will listen and write down dialogue verbatim. Truman Capote once did this long after he was successful, to re-train his ear and mind to capture dialogue.
But it’s not writing. Not really.
At least it’s not writing worth being read, except as an exercise.
Good dialogue will make you want to read it. Good dialogue seems like talking, though it isn’t really.
We remember good dialogue from great books. Telling dialogue. Hear the words of Jake Barnes, the narrator and protagonist of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, when he quietly declares to Lady Brett Ashley the impossibility of their love together at the end of the novel: “Yes,” I (Jake) said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Less immediately powerful perhaps but still revealing, when Nick Carraway tells Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past,” and Gatsby says, “Can’t repeat the past?...Why of course you can.” This may reverberate in the reader’s mind when Gatsby comes to a brutal end later.
Irony, drama and tragedy can be conveyed by what appears to be simple dialogue. But in the hands of master writers it is so much more.
While we most likely can’t make our dialogue as powerful, memorable and effective as Hemingway or Fitzgerald or other masters, we can do things to make our dialogue better.
Five Things to Keep in Mind When You Write Dialogue
1. Good dialogue is drama. Dialogue should be part of the action that moves the story forward, not just merely talk.
2. Good dialogue is lean. In life, dialogue is often rambling, repetitive and even pointless. In good fiction, dialogue is pointed, clear and sharp.
3. Good dialogue is compressed. Use few words to say much. (See number 2.)
4. Good dialogue is interesting and sounds natural. As in all writing, but especially here, skip the boring parts.
5.Good dialogue is effective. Whatever you’re trying to do as a writer in your fiction, check to make sure your dialogue is doing its job.