So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it. ~Jiddu Krishnamurti
Good dialog is essential to good storytelling. Characters need to express themselves, react to their environment, argue with each other, complain, cajole, compliment, question…. in other words:
Good dialog opens the story like a flower budding – everything expands, opening ideas and implications for the reader.
In order to write good dialog you have to listen to the world and listen to the whole of it — not just the words but the meaning. Not just the meaning but the inflection. Not just the inflection, the intent.
When you can absorb all the layers, you are on your way to reusing it for your own writerly purposes. You need to fill the well first.
Eavesdropping on family and friends is a dangerous habit that can lead to trouble. Cultivate instead the art of listening to strangers. Sip your latte and listen to the girls at the table next to yours. Maybe it’s a mundane conversation; maybe it’s disjointed, half-hearted. Maybe it’s almost nonexistent — maybe they are on their phones.
It is important to note that simply transcribing real world dialog is a bad idea. A really bad idea. Have you listened to a conversation? Really listened? It is filled with pauses, repeated phrases, verbal nods (“yeah”, “uh-huh”) and filler.
Example phone conversation:
“OK I’ll see you later,” said Macy.
“Do you have the letter?”
“What?” Benny sounded distracted.
“I said, Do you have the letter?”
Condensed for the page:
Macy started to disconnect but then asked, “Do you have the letter?”
“I said, Do you have the letter?”
Benny mumbled that he did and disconnected the call.
In the same way that readers should not have to read actual dialect transcribed on the page, they should not have to suffer through real-time conversations. Readers are smart; they will understand implied agreement between characters without you having to spell it out. Trim conversations as mercilessly as you do other parts of the story, otherwise your prose will stall under the weight of lifeless dialog.
For all that, there are gems to be mined from real life conversations. You might learn new slang or a different phrasing for a common saying. If you can, try to watch people talking, too. Using dialog tags (“said Alex”, “Deena said pointing her finger”) are important to orient readers during dialog blocks. And physical movements are crucial to impart meaning and nuance. For example, saying, “That’s fine,” said Macy. tells you a basic fact, a building block of the story. One character has assented to a request. But what about this instead: “That’s fine.” Macy didn’t turn her head when she spoke.
Two ways to convey the same bit of dialog. The second one gives you another layer into Macy’s feelings and possibly her relationship to the other character. She could have many reasons for not turning her head — the reader gets to chew on that until more is revealed.
It is the writer’s duty and privilege to decide how to convey each bit of character to the reader, and dialog and the words that frame it are the prime way to do this. In the example above I first wrote Macy didn’t bother to turn her head when she spoke. I changed it – took out the editorializing (the word “bother”) because I realized I was coloring the reader’s perception of poor Macy. She hadn’t done a thing to deserve such scorn! To say that someone didn’t bother to do something is quite different than simply saying they didn’t do something.
How dialog tags are used depends on the point of view (POV) of the story. In a first person story where the narrator (the I of the story) is mad at Macy, it could be entirely within character for the narrator to say that Macy couldn’t be bothered to turn her head. She says this from her narrative perspective — she can’t know what Macy is feeling; this is her interpretation of the moment.
In a third person narration it depends on whether you’ve limited the POV to a single character (this is my favorite POV, by the way). If you have access to Macy’s point of view, then saying that she couldn’t be bothered to turn her head is likely something that she herself is acknowledging. It is, in other words, a conscious act.
Which is all to say that you can have a first person narrator assign meaning to other people’s actions — the 1st person narrator can say that Macy couldn’t be bothered to turn her head when she spoke. It is simply important to realize that’s what you’re doing; you’re having your character give meaning to another character’s actions. Meaning that cannot be confirmed or denied.
People talk constantly; characters are no different. Learning to use dialog to effectively set the mood, illustrate character, advance the plot, and create tension will help you become a better writer. Harness the power of conversation to drive your story, flesh out your characters, and build your world.