So, there you are, a writer with a tale to tell. You’ve got your characters, your setting and your plot, and you’re off down Exposition Road. A little description, a little setting, and two characters meet. One opens his or her mouth, and says…what? Here comes one of the toughest aspects of creative writing: credible dialogue.
It’s hard to do because, let’s face it, you’re trying to capture one medium and portray it in another, and there’s a subtle alchemy that needs to take place. As anyone who’s ever tried rendering a conversation into believable dialogue quickly realizes, there are different rules at play. For one thing, a literal transcription of people talking is dull as dishwater to read, because a lot’s being missed. People talking face-to-face pause in the middle of sentences; they trail off, or use non-verbal gestures to complete a thought. They nod, wink, make allusions to past events that the speakers understand, but anybody reading a transcript probably won’t. Along the way, they may speak elliptically (this one is commonly used in depicting spouses with communication issues) and appear to be having unrelated conversations simultaneously. Easy to follow in person, or at least easier; tough as hell to read.
To compound the matter, the pace and rhythm of speaking is much different than reading. Reading tends to be linear; the information flows from A to B all the way to Z and back in an understandable line. Even supposedly non-linear manuscripts tend to follow this flow; such stories tend to work more in parallel than in true non-linearity. Because of its 1-2-3 progression, the information can be followed fairly quickly. Conversations between real people, on the other hand, can leap subjects rapidly, and happen with great variations in speed and rhythm. Depending on how well the speakers know each other, a conversation can be carried out entirely in code words, punch lines or any other unit of words that carries meaning to the speakers, but would require massive amounts of exposition for readers to get. As a result, any attempt to make dialogue “realistic,” in terms of pacing and verbatim utterances, can easily hit the ear like a brick.
The trick to writing dialogue, then, is not to make it “realistic” in the sense of being absolutely true to how it would sound in life. Instead, good dialogue needs to conform in general to the ebb and flow of conversation normal to its context, while cutting out the irrelevant content. Irrelevant content means not just the pauses and filler words like “um” and “like,” but also anything that does not contribute to the scene or character. If the character is digressive, so should his or her dialogue be, but too much of that and the reader loses interest. On the other hand, digression is a valuable tool for writers to use. People rarely come straight out and say what they mean; if they did, plain-spokenness wouldn’t be seen as a virtue as much as it is. Digression, therefore, can be useful in showing a character’s emotional state, value system, or even just their ability to bullshit.
When I think about good dialogue, two names immediately leap to mind. The first is Elmore Leonard, a man who is widely considered a master of writing dialogue. In fact, despite much of his writing falling squarely within genre boundaries, he is often cited in literary writing circles for his mastery of this aspect of writing; he certainly was where I went to graduate school. Leonard has the rare ability to have his characters speak in distinctive patterns that are perfectly suited to them as characters, not the writer masquerading as them, AND make it sound natural to the story. Leonard’s dialogue may be stylized in some cases, as in Get Shorty, but it always sounds not only like the character, but like something the character would really say. The few really good movie adaptations of his work, like Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, among others, are made by people who grasp this.
The other name that springs to mind when I think of dialogue is Joe R. Lansdale, another author who works comfortably and well within numerous genres. Lansdale takes a different approach to dialogue; his characters speak in ways that you would never believe if you heard spoken out loud, but within the outrageous confines of his universe, make sense. Lansdale often goes for funny in his dialogue, particularly in the Hap and Leonard series, and while the dialogue sometimes overpowers the plot, it’s so vital in its own right that it’s tough to hold it against him, especially when it’s clear that Lansdale is accentuating the dialogue for story reasons. Unlike a lot of genre writers, Lansdale never forgets that people are what make stories go, and his dialogue is always focused on keeping that aspect of the story in the reader’s view.
Of course, like many things, the quality of dialogue in a story or set of stories is mainly a subjective judgment, so you as a reader are best served by consuming as many examples of it as you can find. Long-winded literary speeches, hard-boiled noir text bullets, multisyllabic technospeak, Lovecraftian orgies of consonants with a definite shortage of vowels: digest it, weigh it against your own knowledge and sensibilities, and see what works. Once you see what falls like fruitcake, you’ll be in better shape to know how to make your characters sing, even if they’re just discussing laundry.