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Now that the structure parts are done, it's time to delve into the parts that make great dialogue great. This will be spread out over three parts, kind of like a beginner, intermediate and profession level structure, but everything can be applied by everyone. Still, the further you go into the guide, the more difficult it becomes to translate everything into great dialogue of your own.
In this part I'll delve into how we speak, how fictional characters speak and what the purpose of dialogue is within stories. If you feel confident enough in your abilities already, you could skip this part to go straight for part three or part four.
Dialogue can have several purposes, but they all boil down to conveying information that furthers the story as a whole. It doesn't matter if it's information about the character, the world or a different part of the story. All dialogue that doesn't do this, can and should be scrapped. A lot falls under this, so don't feel alarmed thinking a big chunk of your dialogue may need to be scrapped. There's dialogue that furthers the plot, dialogue that reveals character motives or back-stories, world building, historic revelations, and so on. But many inexperienced writers also tend to write dialogue that servers no purpose within the story, often as an attempt to make the dialogue seem more realistic or to try and work in more details about the world. When looking over your own dialogue, especially when writing a new draft, consider whether it really is relevant to the story or not.
Let's delve into the realism part of dialogue first. Characters in novels rarely speak like people in real life, but great dialogue is written in a way that makes it seem like the conversation is one you'd hear in everyday life. This varies from character to character of course, some are meant to be more superhuman than others, but in general you want to have your characters sound as realistic as possible without being realistic at all. Sounds like a paradox, right? It is, a little bit.
Let's take a regular conversation first. A real-life one would include the beginning and end of a conversation (often a greeting and goodbye), many uhms and pauses, and many other bits and pieces that make a conversation flow far from smoothly. In written dialogue, all of these elements are taken away to get to the core of the conversation instead. Written dialogue is like a cleaned up version of real life dialogue, but there's more to it than just that. You can write a cleaned up version of what a real-life conversation would be, but if it serves no purpose, it's pointless to keep it in your story. At best it makes the reader expect a pay off that never happens, at worst it bores the reader and wastes their time.
Let's say two characters are talking about important, plot-relevant topics. Then, after that is done, they continue to talk about plot irrelevant details and you can't just cut away to the next scene without making it jarring. Instead of continuing to write the conversation to a natural ending, you can simply write something like: They continued to talk for several hours more, about family gatherings and summer pastimes and plans for the future.
This gives enough information to let the reader know what happened without boring them with useless details, while also giving just enough personal details to make it more interesting to read than just "they talked".
Now what about the story relevant conversation, how to tackle this? Again, cut down all the irrelevant bits like greetings and goodbyes (unless they are relevant of course) and write the relevant ones. Let's say two characters are meeting up to discuss their plans to rob a bank, their supplies, and their co-conspirators. You could write it along the lines of:
Durn arrived at the hideout, a little later than planned, and was met by Garin.
"Where are the others?" said Garin.
"They couldn't make it. Tiran got caught, he's locked up for good. Marl is hiding and Prestin is unsure he wants to go through with it," said Durn.
"Blasted fools," — he slammed the table hard with his fist — "this is not what we had planned! Whatever, we can do it with four. We'll deal with Marl and Prestin later. Did you get the prints?"
"Right here," he said, reaching for a scroll inside the quiver on his back. He unrolled it, revealing detailed blueprints of each of the bank's floors. They went over them together and noted down potential entry points and other details for each room. For hours they discussed and rediscussed their plan of attack, each time trying to find faults and weaknesses within them. It wasn't until nightfall they were satisfied.
This short example does a few things:
- Reveal the immediate priorities of the characters and how the change in their crew affects them.
- Reveal their successes and failures up to this point (more would be clear with the context of an actual story of course).
- Keep the dialogue to only the necessary bits while summarizing all the unnecessary ones.
Their planning session was summarized completely. Within this context, the only plan important to the reader is the one they'll actually try to execute, so that's the only plan that ever will be written out. How they came about their plans can be important however, hence why the description included those details. The plan itself could be revealed to the reader by having one of the characters explain it to the missing people once they manage to meet up with them, for example.
The other mistake inexperienced writers make is trying to add a lot of exposition into the dialogue to make sure the reader has all the information they need, often in clunky ways. While dialogue is a great way to provide exposition, it has to be done right to make sure realism isn't broken. To give you a very on the nose and over the top example:
"I can't believe it, it's the Eye of the Magus! The ring crafted by Tilrandus, the greatest wizard to have ever lived. The ring capable of turning people to stone, to turn lead into gold and to grant the wielder the power of flight! It was lost for ten thousand years after the Boarmen defeated him in the Battle of Beasts. You're incredibly lucky to have found this," he said.
All of this information could very well be plot relevant, but it can easily be spread out over different paragraphs, conversations and even chapters. While the mistake of this example is obvious, it can be difficult to see the same types of mistakes in more subtle dialogue. Avoiding this mistake takes practice, but some things to look out for include:
- Is the info given something a character asked for or something a character is providing for a specific reason?
- Is the info given in a natural manner or is it kind if pushed into the conversation?
- Is the info given by a character who would realistically known about it all? And would they realistically be willing to part with it?
- Is the info relevant to the conversation?
There's more to it than just this, of course, but keeping these types of questions in mind can help with making dialogue flow more natural rather than being just an exposition canvas. There are ways to steer dialogue in ways to give the readers more information in a natural manner, but that's for part 4.