Contrary to popular belief, dialogue in a fiction manuscript should not resemble what actually occurs between two people in a conversation. When we talk to friends and family members, are speech is littered with unimportant observations, stutters, um’s, er’s and small talk, none of which would be interesting to a reader when written on the printed page. Dialogue has one purpose in a story, and one purpose only: to move the plot forward.
If you don’t believe me, carry a tape recorder in your pocket and record your next conversation. When you get back to your desk, replay the entirety of the conversation and transcribe it on your computer. Then go back and read what you wrote, and you’ll see that much of what was said was uninteresting in retrospect. It doesn’t have anything to do with the grand scheme of things; conversations rarely do. That is why effective dialogue in a fiction manuscript is censored by the author to include only what is relevant.
1. Know Why You Are Using Dialogue
in order to use dialogue effectively, you must have a legitimate reason for its place in your story. Perhaps you want to demonstrate how two characters converse — how they get along, what they have in common, whether they are friends or enemies. This is a great way to show the reader something rather than spelling it out in exposition, but only if you use it sparingly and with careful thought.
2. Break It Up
In real life, there are people who can talk your ear off for hours and others who are lucky to get two words in edgewise; that doesn’t work well in fictional dialogue unless you have some reason for conveying that one character is a chronic chatterbox. Readers are terrified of large blocks of text, particularly those that have quotations marks at the beginning and end. When reading a book, people need a break from constant talking, which is something the author (you) needs to provide. Make sure that dialogue is a conversation and that no one is going on for several paragraphs without a break.
3. Give it Some Flavor
Dialogue can also be used to demonstrate a particular accent or nationality. When I write fiction, I almost always have at least one character who is from another country because I enjoy writing those inflections. I also sprinkle my characters’ dialogue with words from the language they speak, as long as the reader can understand what is going on. You can also have a character that speaks with a lisp or who uses one word more often than others. All of these traits and characteristics will lend flavor to your story and to the dialogue.
4. Summarize Conversations
If one of your characters needs to give a lengthy speech, you can always summarize in exposition. For example, let’s say that one of your characters is reiterating a story that the reader always knows. You can always say something like this: Judy told Rick what she’d found in the storage room and he listened with rapt attention. He raised his eyebrows and gasped at the appropriate times, and when she was finished, she realized she was out of breath. You didn’t use any dialogue here, but the reader understands what exactly was said. You can even cap it with dialogue to finish up: Judy inhaled deeply, looked down at her hands, then finally managed to meet Rick’s eyes. “What do you think?” she asked uneasily.
5. Read It Back
If dialogue isn’t something you are comfortable with, don’t hesitate to read it back once you’ve finished. You can even have a friend or family member read the parts of the two characters in the conversation to make sure it flows and accomplishes its job. Dialogue should flow within the narration, but it should not go one for miles. Make sure that the words flowing from your readers’ mouths sound natural and that you’ve properly identified who’s speaking at appropriate points.