Recently, I was talking with a mentee about what makes good dialogue and wanted to compile some more thoughts here. The most common goal I hear from writers is how to make their dialogue realistic or natural. But good dialogue isn’t always realistic or natural dialogue. These two terms get conflated a lot which can be misleading. If you listen to people in conversation, they often speak in cliches, overuse idioms, repeat themselves and skirt a lot of context that exists between the speakers (depending on how deep their relationship is). This can make for very bland reading, though, sometimes that blandness can be intentional and making that choice is what matters.
I find when I come across mealy dialogue, it’s because of an over-dependence on realism or naturalism. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with striving for realism but it’s not always acknowledged that grasping for the “real”–whatever that is–from a singular author will still give evidence of biases, limited experience and particular cultural contexts in a distilled form. Your real is only your real, not everyone else’s even if others recognize aspects as familiar. Some writers try to graft realism into their work, which often means relying on stereotypes and cliches in order to widen the scope of their story and therefore make it feel more global, heterogenous, but that often comes off as fake and shallow. So why strive for this false state of consensus reality when what’s made in the tunnel of your own mind is much more interesting?
I prefer the truth of an author’s perspective, their predilections and quirks reflected in all aspects of story, dialogue included. This might mean foregrounding a level of abstraction, poetics or cartoonishness in how characters speak. For example, I like how Amy Hempel handles dialogue in “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”; there’s a sad poeticism in how her characters speak that feels ‘natural’ to them yet specific to the story as a whole and Hempel herself. Remaining faithful to one’s creative pleasure is far more “real” than sanding down dialogue to attain some mushy familiar naturalism. The whole story, after all, is only an imitation of the real, fantastic abbreviated devices the author has distilled and orchestrated.
I think about this quote from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o often: “I believe that universality is the child of particularity. Remember that grain of sand? It contains the world. A writer has to be faithful to that grain in order to envision the universe.” That grain is one’s perspective. Even if your story is set in modern day without a hint of the speculative, the magic resides in how well the author can commit themselves to their own reality and not the consensus. In loyalty to one’s own reality, universality can be found.
What good dialogue is also changes within the context of your story. The influencing context can be as macroscopic as the genre or the overall tone you’re going for. A satirical or comedic story could establish a hyperbolic or outlandish manner of how characters speak early on and therefore come off as ‘natural’ within the scheme of the story. One example of this is JP Moran’s short story, “Mt. Rushmore with Bozo the Clown”, where the dialogue is littered with dry jokes but somehow still maintains a sincerity I find moving. The same goes for constructed languages, if you’re dealing with a scifi or fantasy world (see: Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, Tolkien’s work etc). Authors often underestimate readers’ ability to get on board with interesting linguistic inventions but, like all aspects of story, it’s about showing the reader who you are and what to expect right from the jump. Establishing what’s natural in the world of your narrative will quickly become their ‘natural’ for the duration of your story.
What else dictates how characters speak? On an immediate level: their emotions, their motives, what they want to hide or reveal, who they’re speaking to, and whether they can use their body to convey certain things instead of vocalizing. On a fundamental level: their cultural upbringing, their specific class and privilege, their place of origin, and pop or subcultural trends they’ve absorbed. On an authorial level, which I think might take precedence over everything else: the tone, the pacing of the story, the intended mood, the theme, and what information needs to be divulged at a particular time.
To expand further on immediate elements of dialogue, let’s talk about subtext in dialogue. People don’t always say exactly what they want how they want to. So subtext in dialogue, or how a character avoids saying something or misspeaks, can manifest in different ways and convey implicit information about the characters identity, their emotions, relationship dynamics, the world around them, themes and more. What a character says or does isn’t always what they think or how they want to act, which can be dictated through strategic reasons or simply emotions. So how does one write subtext? Usually through contradiction, suggestion and transposition. Besides just having your character outright say the opposite of what they want to, you can use body language or the manner in which someone is speaking that contradicts what the character’s saying. That contradiction adds a level of complexity because the truth lies somewhere between what’s being said and how it’s being said. Transposition is when a character is talking about one thing but clearly means another. Suggestion would encompass things like sarcasm, flattery, passive aggressiveness, and euphemisms. Sometimes a character relaying their direct truth is important but often the space between truth and the way they obfuscate it (or the manner of obfuscation) is just as rich and holds a lot of narrative potential.
I don’t know many exercises about writing dialogue outside of just sitting down and writing it. But a suggestion I often hear in order to achieve a sense of naturalism to dialogue, is to read it out loud. This is helpful in some cases but not all, especially because many people read without ‘hearing’ in the first place. I usually read without an inner voice unless something in the text seems like it sounds pretty to vocalize on re-read. When we read, most of us are reading for meaning, not for sound. We respond without needing to ‘hear’ the word in our heads before we parse it. Words are symbols of meaning, not just phonic sound notations. If your writing is going to be received only in audio form then yes, make it flow for the reader’s ears but if it’s not strictly aural then this exercise isn’t always a benefit.
An exercise I do recommend for dialogue is just writing your characters in conversation in different situations. Don’t worry about establishing the scene or dialogue tags, just write straight unfiltered dialogue. It can be plot-relevant or not, but regardless it will be important to your story because you’re figuring your characters out in action and also the grammatical and dialectical habits you have as a writer. I like this essay on dialogue and grammar tropes in dialogue which you can use or avoid as needed.
When you go back to revise, ask yourself: What is this line adding to the conversation? What will its absence add if I cut it? What diction are they using and why? What register is this character speaking in and why? Why is this character being evasive? Why are they being blunt? Is this something they would say or am I forcing them to say it for narrative reasons? Does the forced or stilted nature of the dialogue work or not?
When you revise conversation within your manuscript, ask yourself: what does this conversation add to the story? Is it moving the story at all? Is it providing insight into the characters or themes? Is it adding tension or building mood?
Like all creative endeavors, there’s no one piece of advice or a trick to nailing dialogue: writing it and then re-writing it. It takes nothing but cold, hard typing time to find your authorial voice for a particular story, then to find the character’s voices and fit them together. Whatever your process, choose your characters’ voices and words with an eye towards the overall tone of the story and its particular reality instead of just consideration for what might be generally ‘realistic’.