The things that make dialog great are the same things that make plots and characters great–imagination. Dialog should present surprises. The unexpected makes stories not only more interesting, but more challenging. At it’s heart, dialog is action, and its value comes from the variety of ways in which it can advance story lines. Ho-hum dialog will drag down the most fascinating characters and clog up the most intriguing plots. Why in the world would any writer do that?
If a reader can anticipate what a character says, what’s the point of having them say it? This is why boredom descends like a cloud of poison gas on scenes in which characters introduce each other. Whenever the action in a scene downshifts into mundane, everyday issues, like ordering from a menu or reading a bus schedule, the smart writer will pile it all into a single paragraph, if not a single sentence. And yet, my students give me manuscripts all the time which feature such discussions as if they’re meaningful.
“I’m having turkey salad and water,” Wanda said.
“I’ll have the big steak,” announced Clyde.
“That much meat would make me sick.”
Clyde laughed. “And I’m gonna have some pie.”
Wanda groaned. “You’ll get indigestion.”
“Nah. I’m gettin’ the bacon-cheese fries, too.”
Is there hope for this exchange? Maybe. The problem with the exchange now is that it’s boring. If anything, it’s too much like what we see in everyday life. Yes, there’s a tiny bit of conflict over good nutrition, but it’s not enough to raise the conversation to a level of interest. But, if we amplify the characterization via better speech and action tags and tweak their word choices a little, we might actually hold a reader’s interest. To wit:
“Not me,” said Clyde, his eyes never straying from a photo of the restaurant’s signature steak, a 24 ounce slab of Porterhouse perfection.
That’s enough for me. I’m content knowing Wanda is watching her diet and Clyde isn’t. But why stop now?
Wanda twisted her lips in disapproval. “That much protein would make me barf.”
Clyde just laughed and turned to the dessert section. “You gonna get the pie?”
Would most folks read on? Possibly. There is some characterization. Wanda has expressive lips, and Clyde is narrowly focused. Can we squeeze out a bit more mileage even if there’s no new plot point?
“You have the diet of a dinosaur. Your arteries are going to clog up like a gas station toilet.”
Clyde didn’t respond. Instead, he flagged down a waiter and asked, “Can I get a double order of bacon-cheese fries with this?”
At this point, I presume poor Wanda is ready to deposit the evening’s appetizer on the table, and if I were writing this, that’s likely what I’d have her do. I’d also couple it with some sort of plot point. If Clyde as an omnivore is important to the story, then we’ve already achieved our goal, but only in the second version. The first is still too vanilla. The second effort has been fluffed out and enough story stuff added to make it worthwhile.
The main take-away here is simply this: in your on-going efforts to surprise your reader, remember that dialog provides fertile ground for doing just that, even if the general discussion isn’t very exciting. You can make it relevant, but it takes effort.
Your dialog bag ‘o tricks has some very flexible tools, like speech and action tags, but they work best when combined with spoken words that startle and amuse. If your dialog feels tired and slow, it probably is. Try injecting one of two things: conflict or humor. And if you can manage both, you’ll do yourself and your readers a service.