By Beth Cotton
Writers must use dialogue to advance the story and develop character. Without successful dialogue, neither of these things happens, and soon the reader loses interest and closes the book. If the dialogue does not set the pace, it is simply taking up space on the page and does not belong there and/or it keeps the story from moving forward.
What, then, is "good" dialogue? It must contribute to the telling of the story and provide dramatic impact to move the story and its characters forward. Dialogue should promote action which shows rather than tells the reader what is happening on each page. Good dialogue causes the reader to get immediately involved, and the reader then begins to develop a kinship with the characters. If done well, the writer can make the characters become real to the reader with dialogue. The reader can get inside the characters’ heads by what is being said.
"Tommy, answer the door, will you? I have to finish putting the cheese on the casserole and get it back into the oven." She hears the door open and Tommy talking to another child. Tommy comes running back into the kitchen with a big smile on his face.
"I’m sorry Tommy, but you can’t go outside to play because you haven’t finished your homework."
"Please, can’t I finish it later, Mom? This is the first time Johnny has asked me to play since we moved here."
"How much of your math assignment do you have left to do?"
"Only two problems. And they are easy. I can do them really fast."
"All right, go to the door and ask Johnny to come in while you finish those problems and then you can go with him, but you can’t be gone a long time because dinner will be ready shortly. Maybe Johnny can call his mom when the two of you get back and ask if he can stay for dinner."
"Thanks Mom, you are so cool!"
What can the reader surmise about these two characters by the dialogue? Each line tells us something about the person speaking; the mother is a homemaker and cooks economical family meals, Tommy is a child who is polite and obedient to his mother, he does not have many friends because they have recently moved to town, the mom wants to help her son socialize with other children so that he will make new friends and will soon adjust to living in a different neighborhood. It shows her love and concern for her son. It shows Tommy is excited about the chance to make a new friend.
Is the reader curious? Does the reader want to know if the mother is single or divorced? Or widowed? Why is she not working? Who is Johnny, and how does he fit into the future story?
Their conversation is real, but it is not just conversation, it is dialogue which has a purpose in developing the characters and advancing the story.