Writing dialogue should be the easiest thing on earth. We all know how to talk and (sometimes) listen to other people talking, so we simply reproduce that on paper, right?
If you were to tape your last sparkling conversation, you'd hear all sorts of detours, stops and starts, repetitions, and incomplete thoughts—not to mention stopgap inserts such as "er," "umm," "hmm" and their cousins. Somewhere in there lies the sparkle and wit you recall, but it was most likely smothered under real life speech. We recall the highlights, the emotional peaks—and that's the part we want to get onto our pages, not the rest. Real life speech serves many functions, includes body language to help get the message across, and most importantly, is not a crafted work of art—which your fictional dialogue will be.
As with all the other aspects of writing fiction, we don't want to reproduce life here—we want to give the impression of having done so and we do that partly by leaving out the boring parts.
In real life, what we say often serves only to put someone else at ease, as in "Nice day, isn't it?" or "How about those Forty-niners?" Sometimes it serves only to impart information: "I'd like the mustard, please," or "Do you think you'll have time to put up the storm windows today?" Those are fine functions, but they lack the necessary tension fiction needs to keep the reader turning pages. They are wheel-spinning chit-chat.
Just as above in real life, fictional dialogue provides information. Those storm windows need to be installed. And again, as in real life, the choice of words and the way in which they're delivered reveals and reflects the character of the speaker. (We'd recognize a different relationship and different personalities both in real life and on the page between "Do you think you'll have time to put up the storm windows today?" and "This house is freezing! When the hell are you going to get off your butt and put up the storm windows?")
But unlike real life talk, dialogue in fiction must also move things along. It has to advance your story line. The storm windows, or the lack of them, or the fury they instill, or what the fact of their not being up might mean (someone can enter the house?) must be on the page because it moves your story along. It can't be there the way it is in real life, simply to get an irrelevant chore done.
To recap: dialogue in fiction has to do three things: provide information, reveal character and move the story along. Good dialogue is action. Think of the words coming out of your characters' mouths as arrows, each shot with a purpose. Language can hurt, inform, spite, confuse, delight, seduce, amaze, terrify—and so forth and so on. Think about the purpose of the line—and if you can't think of a purpose for it, toss it out.
Even though we're crafting speech into an artful impression of it, we have to avoid smoothing it out so much that it doesn't ring true. The term "smooth talker" isn't generally a compliment, so if you make a character overly-eloquent, he'll sound as if he's reciting pre-rehearsed lines and isn't sincere. We'll be suspicious of him. (Which means, of course, this could be used as a clue, although one many readers might notice.) This is also an important thing to remember when you're writing an emotional scene—when fear, lust or rage takes over, people are generally less coherent than ever, so at such times be especially careful not to give them such well-crafted lines, and such lovely imagery that you create the impression they're faking the emotion. (Unless, of course, that's the effect you're after.)
Make your speech reflect the speaker. Vocabulary choices and speech patterns should suggest everything you know about him plus his current emotion. What's his educational background? What temperament does he have? Is he easy-going and apt to ramble (in which case you'd suggest rambling, but not provide all the meandering he does)? Or might he speak in clipped, short sentences? Does he end every question with a question, such as "don't you agree?" or qualify his remarks with phrases like, "at least that's what I think."
Think about the role the character plays in this situation. Is he a yes-man? A negotiator? The peace-maker? A fearful, noncommittal type? Someone there to force people to decide in his favor? You can think of lots of other purposes for your characters, and whatever it is should shape what they say. I've given you two examples of how differently a request to put up storm windows could be, but there could be hundreds of further variations on that one small item, depending on the background of the speaker, his or her personal agenda, and the role both the speaker and the spoken to are playing. Adding a sense of the speakers and their purposes and emotions pushes dialogue into a new dimension, giving it tension and a sense of forward action.
It's important to remember this as your sleuth goes about his investigation. Too often, beginning writers have cardboard minor characters who are on scene only to impart information. That's not lifelike or particularly interesting, so remember to think about those people. They don't know they're in your book only because they know something. They, like all of us, believe that they are the center of the universe. They have their own agendas, their own fears, their own backgrounds that will influence what they tell the sleuth and how they say it. Do they want to help or hinder? Maybe they don't want either -- they want instead to date the sleuth. Or to ask him to help put up those storm windows. In any case, if you put a person into your novel—make them a person whose dialogue reflects who he is. The tension and texture this adds is well worth it—precisely the same way that adding spices to a bland stew is worth the effort.
To sum up: think about what your character wants to say, why he wants (or needs) to say it, and how he'd say it, given who he is and what he wants. Think about how his words advance your story line. The net result will be very unlife-like dialogue that feels very true to life.
Next lesson: Three ways to present dialogue and when to use each of them.
Adapted from: You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts.
© Gillian Roberts.