Dialogue is not conversation. It is an artificial construct that gives the impression of spontaneous and realistic speech without the ums and ers and repetition and stuttering and sidetracks into inanity that characterizes normal conversation. Dialogue shows the relationship between characters, and ideally should be so effective that any analysis of the relationship is unnecessary.
Elizabeth Bowen, a British author, writes: “What are the realistic qualities to be imitated (or faked) in novel dialogue? Spontaneity. Artless or hit-or-miss arrival at words used. Ambiguity (speaker not sure, himself, what he means.) Irrelevance. Allusiveness. Erraticness, unpredictable course. Repercussion.
“What must novel dialogue, behind mask of these fake rrealistic qualities, really be and do? It must be pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize situation. It must express character. It must advance plot. During dialogue, the characters confront one another. The confrontation is in itself an occasion. Each one of these occasions, throughout the novel, is unique. Since the last confrontation, something has changed, advanced. What is being said is the effect of something that happened; at the same time, what is being said is in itself something happening, which will, in turn, leave its effect.”
Dialogue also characterizes the speaker; we can tell who a character is by what that character says and how he or she says it. Each character the main character interacts with should bring our a different facet of the character. You generally don’t speak the same way to your boss and your best friend, your mother and your spouse.
Sometimes when people talk to others, especially when they accuse the other person of doing or behaving in a certain way, they are talking to themselves. So, in effect, what a character says to another or about another reveals the character’s inner thoughts. Like dreams. Didn’t Freud say that all characters in a dream are facets of the dreamer?
So how do you write good dialogue?
Make speeches short.
Have speakers cut in on one another.
Answer a question with a question.
Ignore questions, or answer it after another exchange of words.
Instead of a character answering a question directly, have him tell why it was done: “Did you eat the cookie?” “They looked so good.”
Have characters play tug-of-war with words, each trying to get something from the other.
When editing, review every snippet of speech and ask yourself, “Is this the best, the wittiest, the most dramatic thing the character can say?” Dialogue is not life. In life, most of us can’t think of the perfect response until it is way too late. But in writing you can take your time and make each bit of dialogue a jewel.
A perfect bit of dialogue from the seventh century:
A foreign conquerors sent the Laconians a message: “If I come to Laconia, not one brick will stand on another.”
The laconic reply? “If”.