Let's face it. At one point or another, in the heat of the action in the middle of a book, we all skim the pages looking for the tell-tale white gap on the right that means only one thing:
Yes, the description is exciting. The setting might be beautiful. And the characters' exact movements might be written in for a reason. But the dialogue is going to move the scene faster, and give us what we want.
That's why it has to be some pretty good dialogue.
There is a lot of conversation swimming around the writing world about the dialogue tags, the he saids and she saids of writing, and whether or not we should use them. Some writers (me included) try to get creative and say things like “he quipped” and “she declared”, but it all ends up meaning the same thing.
There are three ways to handle the dialogue:
1. Stick to 'he said' and 'she said', and let the reader do the imagining.
2. Come up with any other possible way to say the word 'said', no matter how desperate it sounds.
3. Don't say anything at all.
Alone, none of those methods work. That's why I made my own option.
My method for dialogue consists of all three of the above options, as well as one more: action. This is the most important tool I use with my dialogue.
Here's an example (and a spoiler if you haven't read the book):
“I aim to meet some friends at the Temple mount.” Simon's voice was steady, and he did not reach for his side.
Marcus remained guarded. “That is a simple excuse, but for one thing. It could be deadly, coming from a zealot.”
Do you see the action? Instead of telling you that he said it, it shows you who said it, by telling you what they did, and attaching what they said after it.
Now for the actual dialogue itself:
I've come to realize just how easy the dialogue is. It used to be challenging, trying to come up with the perfect way for the characters to say what they felt. With perfect articulation and grammar, I tried to form pretty conversations that never turned out the way I wanted.
Because it was fake.
Because in real life, nobody, nobody, uses proper grammar 100% of the time (not even me. :)
I read through all the techniques. I bought books, read articles, asked questions, tried to train myself, and it all narrowed down to the fact that the answer had been staring me in the face.
Just write it.
That's it. Nothing fancy, no special techniques. Just write it the way you would say it. Step into the shoes of each of the characters, and act the way you would act if it was your boss, coworker, neighbor, friend, or relative speaking to you. How would you act if someone asked you that? What would you say? That's what you should write.
ONE MORE THING.
I was reading about this earlier on another blog, and I knew I had to add my take on it here as well.
Stick to the important parts.
If a conversation is going to end up being important or informative, then only include the important and informative parts. Say one character walks into the room and makes small talk for a minute before getting to the point.
Yes, that happens in real life. No, it doesn't have to be shown in the scene. That example can be summed up in one sentence like, “He tried to make small talk, but was fidgeting. He knew what had to be said.”
Then get to the point.
Otherwise, you run the risk of somebody skipping over the dialogue and missing the important part, or worse, putting down the book altogether.
There's a dialogue gauge, and you should hold it up to every sentence you write. Does it:
a) Have some importance in the plot line,
b) give the reader information,
c) tell them something new about the character, or
d) drop a hint that the reader will realize later on?
If it does, keep it. If it doesn't, drop it.
It's a tricky thing, but if you comb over your dialogue, only keep the important parts, format it in an interesting way, and make it both believable and intriguing, you've won.
Is it easy? No. But you're not here for the easy; you're here to write.
So let's write.