During every single fiction writing workshop that I've ever taught over the course of nearly a decade, at least one student in each lesson would defend the dialogue in his story and say, "Well, that's exactly what I heard people in real life say."
Mirroring real life is the death of good fiction. Maybe I'm being dramatic, but to put it bluntly, real life is not fiction. Fiction is the mask that makes you believe the writing on the page could actually happen. It's an emotional and logical trick. A colorful lie, but that's the beauty. Real life is not about emotionally moving your audience to laugh or cry, right? So why copy it?
Instead, the goal of the fiction writer is to convince her reader that the world she's writing about is authentic (not to be confused with real). Authentic means believable in the realm of the world of the story. And that world could be downtown Portland, or Wakanda.
Although you might hear a young couple having this conversation in real life, it doesn't mean it's any good on the page.
Person A: "Hey."
Person B (looking at iPhone): "Huh."
Person A: "Like, you want Burgerville?"
Person B: "I just got this text, and I'm like freaking out."
Person A: "Or we could go wherever."
Person B: "Like what is even going on?"
Person A: (now looking at iPhone.): "Are you going tonight?"
Person B: "What?"
While it's amusing to watch this couple in real life who are completely unable to communicate effectively, in fiction, this scene makes no sense. There is no drama or humor or tension. In short, dialogue in real life is where we, as people, slack the most, which is why it's awful to use as dialogue in a short story.
On the page, we need to consider each party and their motivation for opening their mouth. What do they want to accomplish when they speak? What do they want to hear or don't want to hear? What are their trigger words? What distracts them? What gets them excited?
It's a lot of work, obviously. But that's what makes writing good dialogue so rewarding.
I realize we don't have all day and all night to fully understand every single aspect of our characters. I mean, we have day jobs and families, so writing cannot always come first. But, I have some easy tricks of the trade to share to help you kick-start your fiction dialogue.
- Get to the point. Keep lines of dialogue shorter (than longer). It's even okay to remove entire words to mirror realism. Remember, you're not getting graded on grammar. In fact, maybe spoken English is very grammatically incorrect.
- Don’t be afraid to offend. If you have a drunk sailor as a character, he’ll most likely talk like one. Talk whether ugly or beautiful is an index of the character. It shows their education, past, interests, biases, etc., which will show us more about the character.
- Remember, it’s not YOU who is talking; it’s your CHARACTER. Write how they'd speak.
- Listen for stilted language. Avoid dialogue that does not sound like natural speech. Think “robot” talk.
- Interruptions: Always, include them. Who ever lets someone go on uninterrupted?
- Filler Dialogue. Avoid dialogue that does not further the scene and does not deepen your understanding of the characters.
- Exposition Dialogue. Avoid dialogue that has the character explain the plot or repeat information for the benefit of the audience.
- Naming. Avoid having one character use another character’s name to establish identity. People almost never say other people’s names back to them, and if they do it is a character trait typical of a used car salesman.
- Overuse of Modifiers. Avoid too many dialogue modifiers such as "shouted", "exclaimed", "cried", "whispered", "stammered", "insinuated", "hedged" and a million others. Modifiers such as these can sometimes be useful, but are often annoying and used as a crutch for poorly designed dialogue. (Please, just stick with “said” as your dialogue tag.)
Following these tips will drastically improve your writing, I promise.
But if it's too much, because let's be honest nine is a lot, the golden rule is brevity. Pick the right words, and you can say (and show) so much more with so much less.