Dialog is one of the trickiest things to do well in fiction, and yet it is also one of the most important aspects of the craft. Nothing sinks a book (or television show, or movie, or play, etc.) quite like bad dialog. Conversely, great dialog can often elevate mediocre prose.
One of the most common mistakes writers make is giving in to the desire to use dialog as an information tool. It becomes a vehicle to disseminate important information to the reader. And while dialog is perfectly capable of doing just that, if not handled properly, it will make your dialog stiff and awkward.
Think of it this way: if your character says something because the reader needs to hear it, they’ve said it for the wrong reason, and you should either cut or revise the line. Consider the following example of awfulness:
Bob walked up to Jimmy, who looked sad. He said, “Hey Jimmy. You look sad. Is it because your mom is dying of cancer and the doctors have only given her two weeks to live?”
Who says something like that? No one in their right mind. Here’s another one, pulled from one of my favorite all time television series (LOST). Full disclosure: this episode was penned during the writer’s strike a few years back.
“When Naomi called, she said ‘Tell my sister I love her.’ Well she doesn’t have a sister! That was our code that meant someone killed her!”
Dialog needs to sound natural without replicating true speech. There’s a subtlety to the craft, a control you must use to demonstrate your ability as a writer. Take the first example. A better passage would look more like this:
Bob sat next to Jimmy. He’d never dealt with anything like this, had no idea how to comfort his best friend. But he couldn’t stand the quiet, the inconsistent sniffles, so he said something. “How is she?”
“Not good,” Jimmy said. “A year left. Tops.”
See the difference? Less is said, but more is implied. We could probably revise it further and make it stronger with a little more elbow grease.
If you’d like more tips on dialog, be sure to check out my book Write to Be Heard. It’s got a ton of great exercises to help you out. Until next week, good writing.