What is it that makes one novel better than another? What facets of the craft elevate a story from pro forma to profound? The first two are absurdly easy to pinpoint: great characters and intriguing plots. In addition to clear narrative, I believe good dialog is the element that makes both great plots and great players possible.
The downside is that bad dialog will do the opposite. It’ll wreck storylines and mangle characters. Stories can be conveyed in a variety of ways: movies, audios, illustrations, and pantomime. Storytellers can act out certain parts and dramatize others. But the world of the novelist is confined to the strength of the writer’s words. Authors, in the traditional sense, are limited to narrative and dialog.
So, if the dialog you write sucks, you’ve lost half of your tool set. Imagine building a house with a hammer but no saw, or a screwdriver but no screws.
What’s so hard about writing good dialog?
The short answer: creating verisimilitude–the appearance of reality.
The only way writers get to practice dialog is by writing it. The dialog we use in everyday life is usually too boring, banal or vapid to include in a story. We prattle on and on, exchanging bromides and clichès, and only rarely do we actually communicate. “Real” dialog isn’t what we want. We only want our story dialog to mimic reality. Can you imagine the following exchange in a book that you’d keep reading:
“Not much, really. The kids keep me busy, and then I have my clubs. I’m in so many. Just can’t learn to say ‘No,’ I guess. How ’bout you? Anything new in your life?”
“Nah. My job sucks, mostly because my boss hates me. Never gives me any time off. I can’t remember the last time I went shopping. Speaking of which, there’s an amazing sale going on at Barfberg’s. It’s awful! The store’s closing. I just hate it. Back when I had time to shop, that’s where I always went. They’ve got so many cute things in my size, and you know how much trouble I have finding things to fit.”
Assuming you’re neither an employee nor a stockholder at Barfberg’s, your life will go on unchanged, as if nothing happened. Why? Because nothing did happen. And that’s the problem with “real” dialog.
But what if we import some of the characteristics of that real dialog and apply them to a manufactured encounter, one where we need to convey a plot point or develop a character:
“Hi, Marge. I haven’t seen you since–“
“Forever, I know. We’ve been tied up in court.”
“Jeff was arrested for embezzlement. He swears he didn’t do it, but after the stunt he pulled last summer with that girl he hired to clean the pool, I wouldn’t put anything past him, the lech.”
“I thought he worked for the government. Oh my God! He embezzled from Uncle Sam?”
“Not you and the kids?”
“Kids, yes, but not ours. Turns out he’s part-owner of a gentlemen’s club.”
“You don’t mean a–“
“Strip club. Yep. Ol’ Jeffie runs a nudie bar. I can’t wait to hear him explain why he’s not loading our 12-year-old into the car on ‘Take Your Child to Work Day.'”
If I’d been really serious about this stretch of dialog, I’d have identified the speakers and described their physical responses. Real people react to things said, and so should fictional people. They can be suspicious of things, or agree wholeheartedly, or disagree vehemently, or respond in any of a thousand other ways. Just as plots and narrative can drag, so can dialog. The easiest way to fix it is to inject action and/or conflict.
But wait! Isn’t that also one of the primary fixes for a weak plot–too little conflict? Too little action?
Yep. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.