Who decides if your dialogue is meaningless, you or your readers? You may believe that what you are writing is immortal prose, but if your readers don’t agree, then perhaps it’s time to rethink parts of your story. Getting rid of long descriptions is easy — go through the passage, pick out one or two telling details, and scrap the rest. Getting rid of inane dialogue is harder. You know that all the information you are giving your readers is important. The problem is, they don’t know that what they are reading is vital to the story. All they know is that they are bored.
Dialogue is not conversation; it is action and as such must propel the story forward. To keep your dialogue from hindering the action, from stopping the forward motion of your story, it must be in conflict or it must help define your characters, preferably both.
According to Sol Stein, author of Stein on Writing, you should examine every bit of dialogue. Ask yourself the following questions: What is the purpose of this exchange? Does it begin or heighten an existing conflict? Does it stimulate the readers’ curiosity? Does the exchange create tension? Does the dialogue build to a climax or a turn of events in the story or a change in the relationship of the speakers?
Once you have determined that the conversation is conflicted and does propel the story forward, you need to look at every line of the dialogue and ask yourself: Is it fresh, colorful? Is it the cleverest thing the character can say?
Writing is not life. In life, most of us cannot come up with that clever quip when we need it; it comes to mind (if at all) late at night when no one is around to be impressed. Your characters don’t have to suffer from that malady because they have you and your late night epiphanies on their side. You can change their words as often as necessary to get it right.
And get it right you must. Good dialogue makes a reader keep reading. Bad dialogue, no matter how crucial to the story, makes readers go in search of other amusements. Because, face it: to readers, our prose is not immortal, it is simply entertainment.