Good dialog isn’t real, it just feels that way.
Say what? Oy. There goes Langston–on his way ’round the bend. Again.
And suddenly, a full minute of your life is gone, and you’ve gained precisely nothing from it. And that assumes YOU are one of the two [cough] speakers quoted. This isn’t dialog. It’s a sampling of mindless cliches tossed back and forth almost as if communication were actually taking place. Mutual nods would have accomplished the same thing, plus they’d have contributed to the circulatory well being of both parties. But this drivel? Ick. Do Not Put This In Your Story!
As storytellers we must strive to create verisimilitude–the appearance of reality. Because “real” reality is usually boring, and boring is the last thing you want your fiction to be.
Okay, but maybe it’s important for Joe and someone else to meet so that a plot point can be established or developed. F’rinstance: Joe can’t be the killer because he was talking to Evinrude whilst the wicked deed was done. That’s fine, but take the opportunity to make the encounter entertaining. Even a brief exchange can have some punch. Ergo:
And so on. Hopefully, you’re a sharp enough reader to note that there were no speech tags in either exchange–no Joe saids or Evinrude replieds. That’s because they weren’t needed. You know who’s talking. In the second exchange, a couple action tags were employed. They provide details about who does what during the conversation. There’s nothing tricky going on here. One guy looks at the floor, the other looks at his buddy’s crotch. And yet both action tags supply a little business that makes the dialog more interesting.
The litmus test for dialog–you remember your high school chemistry, right?–is a simple question: Is this conversation boring? If the answer is “yes,” you’ve got work to do.
The easiest way to pump life into dull dialog is to introduce conflict. And, just between you and me, it doesn’t matter how inconsequential that conflict is. As long as there’s something to argue, worry, condemn or stress over, your dialog will automatically improve. Make somebody angry, or sad, or bitter, or just pissy. The reason can be either irrational or utterly understandable. This is where your life experience comes into play, take advantage of it! We’ve all had encounters with folks who were contentious for reasons we couldn’t control. Now’s the time to make those awkward moments pay some dividends. Use ’em!
Example: somebody cut your character off in rush hour traffic resulting in a fender bender. Or maybe some idiot rolled a double cartload of groceries into the 10-item or less lane, and then fumbled around writing a check in the same amount of time Congress needs to pass contested legislation. Or maybe somebody’s kid knocked over a department store display and immediately pointed the finger at your guy.
Every time you introduce something like this, your readers will instinctively put themselves in the place of your character, and they’ll invariably be on the side of the injured party. Never forget: you’re the master of the dance! You direct the action; you make the decisions. Give your character a problem, and you’ll give your dialog life. And your readers will love you for it.
Next up: more on speech tags vs action tags.