Great dialogue in literary fiction serves multiple functions but never detracts from the story’s progress or purpose. Take this example from classic literature, which has action, conflict, revelation, and voice. It serves multiple purposes:
“If I were in heaven, Nelly, I should be extremely miserable.”
“Because you are not fit to go there,” I answered. “All sinners would be miserable in heaven.”
“But it is not for that. I dreamt once that I was there.”
“I tell you I won’t harken to your dreams, Miss Catherine! I’ll go to bed,” I interrupted again.
She laughed, and held me down; for I made a motion to leave my chair.
“This is nothing,” cried she: “I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth.”
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Basic rules of dialogue
In fiction, successful dialogue serves one, and usually more, of the following purposes:
– advances the story
– develops characters
– moves the plot
– illuminates a theme or meaning
– provides a time transition (usually subtle)
– changes the direction of the plot, usually through conflict
– creates voice and tone, for story or for characters
– provides understanding of enlightenment for characters
– illuminates desire and motivation
– supports attribution with consistent syntax and ideation
– meets the rhythmic necessity of human speech compatible with story dialogue
– adds drama (through conflict and resultant action)
– provides movement for story ideas and plot
In fiction, successful dialogue (almost) never:
– is used only to break up a narrative passage
– tells what was actually said in an author’s experience
– provides exposition that questions credibility in any way
– is static prose
– provides prose context for a clever simile or metaphor
– slows down story-plot movement
– provides a setting that is better conveyed via narrative
– addresses author opinion
– mimics what a character might say in the real world
– is a conversation in quotes without story-related purpose
In great fiction, dialogue is not intuitive, and it does not come naturally to writers. Most importantly, for effective dialogue in fiction, authors cannot simply describe a conversation from real experience or from an imagined scene. Dialogue must always serve the purpose of story development; therefore, it cannot be a taped recording of reality.
In revision of dialogue, these questions are useful:
Is dialogue logical?
Does it fit character desire and motivation?
Does it support theme and meaning?
Does it move?
Ideas for improvement of dialogue
Consider dialogue from the character’s story “reality.” When revising a specific dialogue segment, ask:
-Is it logical for the character’s education?
-Is it true to story time and the character’s age?
-Does it match the character’s emotion of the moment?
-Does it fit the character’s credible thinking and perceptions of the moment?
B. Avoid authorial thinking
Writing literary fiction is objective. Author ideas and opinions should not drive dialogue unless they are consistent with the characters and narrator and serve a purpose in the story.
Characters climbing into a life raft in a churning sea after the cruise ship sank.
“My leg is broken.”
“Is there a flare?”
“There ought to be criminal charges for crews getting into lifeboats before paying passengers.”
The last quote is authorial. It’s a concept out of the moment and expressing ideas illogical for a moment of crisis.
C. Avoid direct answers (kills movement)
“Is that a Gila monster?”
“Yes, I think it is.”
The above is not usable dialogue. It fills time and space on the page, but it does nothing for drama or story. What about:
“Stay back, they bite!”
But this has no realism. When nothing is working, look for a greater problem. Should the idea even be expressed in dialogue at all?
Let’s think about this for a minute. “Is that a Gila monster?” may not be direct character dialogue that is useful in any story. The dialogue is being used to inform the reader of the presence of a potentially dangerous creature. In dramatic fiction, a scene must have a purpose, and it must have action. “Is that a Gila monster?” has no effect in fiction; it sounds contrived, and it lacks dramatic conflict between the character(s) and the forces of nature (monster). Realistically, the dialogue speaker must be afraid, or planning escape, or figuring out a way to kill the enemy, or admiring its unusually threatening size. But will that work? A key revision might be to remove this information from dialogue.
D. Avoid “talking heads” (two-character ping-pong dialogue)
Although frequently necessary, dialogue limited to two characters (or even talking to oneself in an internal monologue) can become dreadfully boring. Conflict is essential in every dialogue passage to maintain the necessary energy for the dialogue segment. Creating dialogue takes practice:
“That bull is a pussycat.”
“I don’t know why they put it in the draw.”
“That bull is a pussycat.”
“You don’t know nothin’. He damn near killed Prettyboy. Knocked him out for two days.”
More characters provide more information, with conflict
“That bull is a pussycat.”
“Well, he knocked out Prettyboy.”
“You shouldn’t put him in the draw, anyway. No reason to get mangled by some crazy man killer.”
“Comes from a family of good bulls. Wish I had more like him.”
E. Avoid simile and metaphor
Never rely on hard-and-fast rules to guide your dialogue creation, but do beware of simile and metaphor. It is often impossible to find the right simile that fits into the context of a dialogue segment and is appropriate and credible with respect to the character’s intelligence and experience. An extreme example:
“Ignore her,” she said. “She looks like Marie Antoinette with a sex change.”
This is dialogue created by an author who is trying to be clever and failing because the simile conjures no specific imagery.
“She looks like hell.”
Even if the author argues that this is in the vernacular of the character and helps define him or her, the simile is a cliché and adds nothing to the writing. Any metaphor that calls attention to itself in dialogue should be deleted.
Creating conflict in dialogue
SCENE: a twin-engine propeller plane at 7,000 feet, the fuselage door open, a woman in her late thirties with a parachute strapped to her back, about to jump; an instructor is visible behind her.
“Don’t do it.”
“It’s one of the most difficult maneuvers we have in skydiving.”
“I’ve never wanted to take the risk.”
There is no conflict here, despite the opportunity for it. This is totally static writing, and not credible. The pacing is wrong for the content. Purpose for the dialogue is not clear. And it contains exposition (about skydiving).
“Don’t do it.”
“It’s why I came.”
“Think of Janie and Sally.”
“No time to think of my children.”
The exposition about children is inappropriate for this story scenario. If the children’s names are already in story, this is redundant, and even if not previously introduced, the mention of children is not logical if someone is about to jump out of an airplane; that is, it is not a useful response to a fictional situation. In fiction dialogue, the emotion at the time of the jump must be strong and felt by the reader through the dialogue. No sense of emotion comes through in this dialogue, making any discussion of children unlikely. Note that for the experienced skydiver, jumping out of a plane might be an everyday experience that would allow discussion about children, but rarely, and it would take careful construction.
“The ripcord won’t work.”
“You’re saying that to scare me.”
“You packed it.”
Some conflict here, which is an improvement. But this is not usable dialogue. Purpose must relate to story, and purpose must be the right choice for a dialogue segment. Clearly the author, in creating this dialogue, had confused purposes in mind. Is this segment about defective equipment? A desire to direct someone, to blame someone? Learning about one or both characters? And if so, learning what? A good writer demands that dialogue has a clearly identifiable purpose related to the story and the story moment in time, and does not allow defective dialogue to slip in. If this really is about defective equipment, maybe it shouldn’t be in dialogue. Perhaps better in a narrative passage.
“You’ve got less than ten seconds.”
“What about you?”
“Count. Pull the cord. You’ve got to be clear.”
“Where is your chute?”
“Where is the pin?”
“You’ve got to be clear” probably means clear of flying objects, including the plane. This is information no one would say—it is too obvious. This problem usually indicates a need for a narrative passage or information to be delivered in another way, possibly as internalization. Also, is “You’ve less than ten seconds” credible structure for dialogue? Wouldn’t a character say “Hurry!”? The same revision logic goes for “Count. Pull the cord. You’ve got to be clear.” Just “Pull the cord!” is more efficient and acceptable.
“Not without you.”
Assuming the fact that two experienced skydivers are in an in-flight emergency with one parachute is already established, there is an opportunity for learning about characters—a moment of grace.
Dialogue arouses interest
Consider this exchange:
“I can’t believe God exists,” she said.
“There’s no evidence He exists,” he said, nodding. “You don’t have to be a scientist to know that.”
“If you’re told time after time from the moment you take your first breath that God exists, it begins to be true.”
“A fact of the mind.”
“And not in any way a fact in reality.”
“And I can’t believe God ever listened to me pray.”
“Me either. And I don’t believe He ever intervened in my life, in one way or the other.”
“And how can there be a heaven? The sky is unfathomable, infinite. There can’t be some floating gardens and Saint Paul at a golden gate with God sitting in an aluminum folding chair trimming his beard with cuticle scissors,” he said, laughing.
“And no hell!”
“Maybe hell is here on Earth.”
“Feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it?”
“Does it ever.”
A major responsibility of an author creating fiction dialogue is to engage the reader’s interest. In the main, an author does this with conflict, surprising information, revelations about something, advancing the plot, evoking images, or providing ideas that provoke thought and wonder. This segment does not do that. Even the humor is awkward; it’s not story related. The discussion is bland and tedious, and the sound of the dialogue doesn’t sound true to a story exchange between two characters.
The purpose of this dialogue is not to entertain, either; it’s to establish the idea that God doesn’t exist. Successful literary fiction is entertaining. This is boring and without conflict. Do you believe the characterization is enhanced by this exchange? Don’t they sound like muddy thinkers without an ounce of originality, their thoughts encased in cliché like a pistachio nut in its shell?
And do you get the slightest sense that any reader will have of new awareness about God or a change in thinking, experience increased attachment to the characters, or care much what the next dialogue segment will bring? This is unsuccessful dialogue in fiction. In essence, the segment has not been conceived and constructed to move the plot, characterize, enlighten the reader, or entertain through quality of prose to stimulate and move ideas.
Writers often spend years seeking the right sound for their dialogue. Sound is important, but only when the dialogue fulfills a primary purpose of doing something important for the story. To be aware of the sound, it may help to read out loud—and if you’re really serious, record and listen to yourself. Always remember that dialogue in fiction is not the way people speak, yet, paradoxically, it has to seem to be the way people speak. How to do that? First, there has to be a natural rhythm to the context in which the speech is carried out. If dialogue is related to an audience with the Pope, speech patterns will differ from those in a bar conversation with Jelly Roll Morton. When writing, notice how the same content can have incredibly varied rhythmic presentations. Create alternatives, and choose the best one(s) for your writing and the story. Musicality is more important in some styles than others; it is always present, but it must not dominate when the story-purpose of dialogue might be lost.
A final thought
The challenge of creating your own effective dialogue will not come from copying some writer you love to read. Of course, read and learn. And then practice. But in the long run, you will need to make decisions about dialogue in your stories. These decisions—essential for voice, movement, clarity, purpose, and credibility—are based on how you think about and create fictional stories, and can only be solved by you. You are the creator, and when you succeed, your writing will be well received, and you will have found your own unique style.