What is dialogue and how does it impact your fiction writing?

Dialogue is everything your characters actually say to each other. An internal conversation is a monologue. This can also be a part of your work and follows similar rules. You can think of a monologue as dialogue between your character and your reader.
So, it’s just like everyday conversation, right? That’s easy, we hear it all the time.
Good Dialogue is  hard to write – and can have the most impact in making fiction stand out.

Why is dialogue hard? First, we have to battle the rules of grammar beat into us as writers. Keep in mind, people do not always speak with perfect grammar. People also start sentences but don’t finish them, change subjects midway through or finish the thoughts of others.
It’s also hard because we might want to write what the character is thinking or spell out exactly what they want. Again, people lie about what they are thinking all the time and we rarely say exactly what we want, it makes us too vulnerable.
Human beings hedge, omit, reconstruct, remember incorrectly, forget, mimic, and tell others what they think they want to hear, all the time. Characters, to sound “real” need to do the same thing. 
But how do you do that without being boring, repetitive, unbelievable, cliche….
That’s the hard part!
Dialogue also serves a purpose and works on multiple levels.

One purpose dialogue serves, is to give your individual characters distinct voices. If you want your characters to feel unique, they must use words differently. Think about the people you know, chances are, your teenage son doesn’t use the same language as your 75-year-old grandmother. A woman who moved to the United States three years ago from Japan, doesn’t use the same language as a man who has lived in a small town in New Hampshire his entire life.
People’s dialogue, what they say and how they say it, is impacted by: education, travel experience, socio-economic status, work experience, religious beliefs, parenthood, regionalisms…. you get the picture.
Basically, everything that impacts our lives, impacts how we speak. The same is true for your characters.
Have you ever been at a party and walked up to a group of people who work together and you can’t follow anything they say? The words are all in your language, but the way they go together makes no sense at all? Every social sphere, whether it’s engineers, boat builders, acrobats, mathematicians, clinical psychologists or fiction writers, have their own vernacular.
Prose allows writers to demonstrate their voice. Dialogue allows writers to demonstrate individual character voices.
Dialogue also furthers the story.

There’s nothing worse than reading a scene and learning something new, then having that followed by another scene where character A recounts the entire last scene to character B.
Dialogue should provide new information to the reader!
It’s true, you might want to repeat information the reader already knows to illustrate a character lying to another, omitting information, or hiding something. We learn something if a character chooses NOT to tell another everything or make changes to what we know really happened. But that is still moving the story forward.
Dialogue can be used to give a character new information or to give the reader new information or both. If a line of dialogue isn’t adding to the story, consider cutting it or rewriting it.
Keep in mind you DON’T have to start a scene at the very beginning. If you are starting all your conversations with “Hi, how are you?” I’m fine, how are you?” Consider starting later in the scene. Or use an introductory sentence like: After exchanging pleasantries, Jane said… or The two men shook hands and greeted each other before Joe said….
One way to think about dialogue is that the words cost you money every time you write a line. They are VALUABLE. Don’t waste your money on Dialogue you don’t need.
Having said that, make sure you are incorporating good dialogue into every chapter or short story. The fiction world is seeing a trend towards a higher percent of dialogue to prose in novels. Because writing dialogue is hard, if you can do it well, your work will rise to the top of the slush pile.
Dialogue works on multiple levels.

Dialogue provides information. Dialogue also SHOWS us character relationships, character flaws (lying etc), character idiosyncrasies, and character development. Does the shy girl begin to talk to people? Does the man, unable to speak about love, finally manage to say the words? Does the teenage boy learn the lingo of the surf community and finally get to put his board in the water? Instead of saying “Ricky learned all the slang the surfers used, so the next time he went to the beach, he fit in.” You can SHOW us this progression by a scene where he can’t communicate, then a scene where he learns how the surfers speak, then a scene where he uses the slang of that community and they let him participate.
Language creates barriers and it also bonds people. You can demonstrate your character’s place in the world, in part, by the ability to communicate.
Dialogue also has subtext. Entire conversations can take place UNDERNEATH the conversation as written. For example, if a character wants to know if another character is interested in a sexual relationship, much can be made of food as a replacement for sex. A conversation about whipped cream, hunger, fine wine, appetite, dark chocolate or satiety can all be code language for do you want to get naked in the hot tub later on tonight?And it’s much more interesting than, do you want to get naked in the hot tub later on tonight? Readers enjoy untangling the unspoken conversation going on underneath  dialogue. Especially, because as fiction writers, you get to include what a character is thinking. For screen and stage plays, you don’t get that luxury, but good actors and directors can make meaning clear.
A great way to “test” the dialogue in your work is to read it out loud. Even better, have other people read it out loud so you can hear it. Does is sound like something a real person would say? Ask your readers how they would say each sentence, they might help you find places that are awkward or unnatural. Do your research, make sure your word choices are appropriate for the character you have created. If your central character is a wine connoisseur and you don’t know anything about wine, travel to a vineyard and spend time in the tasting room. Learn the appropriate language and have fun doing it.
Putting in the extra time to polish your dialogue is guaranteed to make your work stand out. Flat, unbelievable dialogue will make a good story fall flat. Exciting, active, interesting dialogue will make a good story, great.
Write yourself a short scene or short story. Include dialogue in that scene. Then rewrite it, changing the demographics of your characters. If your original story has a twenty-year-old female bodybuilder talking to a twenty-year-old male bodybuilder, how does the dialogue change if the new characters are a sixty-year-old college professor of English Literature and a forty-year-old army sergeant. Keep the overall “story” the same – if it’s a pick up, keep it a pick up. If it’s a tense fight between family members, keep it a tense fight between family members, but change it from brothers who are ten and twelve, to brothers who are forty and forty-five. Concentrate on how their language in their dialogue changes, just because you’ve made them older, younger, more or less educated….. 

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.