If we do an internet search on how to write good dialogue, most sites have the same pointers – move action forward, reveal character, don’t make all the characters sound the same, come into the scene late and leave early, use simple dialogue tags and use them sparingly, and punctuate dialogue correctly. Good advice, but they don’t demonstrate how one writes good dialogue.
First, I would like to thank everyone in the Columbia II writer’s workshop for all the positive comments about my dialogue. I have always thought that I was horrible at it. And, I had good reason to believe so.
I took a theater class in college, and one of the options for the paper was to write a scene of a play. I shared my idea with my professor, and he seemed very excited that one of his freshmen was going to attempt the task. I’m sure he was quite bored with the typical papers he received. When I met with him to show him my feeble attempt, his disappointment was obvious. He didn’t say anything negative, but I knew he was thinking “how could such a great idea turn out like this?” Even I knew it was beyond horrible.
While I may now believe that my dialogue is pretty good, I still don’t think I can write a play. The stakes for dialogue are higher in a play; it must move action forward and reveal character without the help of narration. My dialogue is just not that strong.
What changed in forty years to improve my dialogue? Obviously, experience is a reason. But I think the real key is that now I know my characters well. I have met them along the roads of Appalachia. They were neighbors, family, friends, former classmates, and shoppers at the grocery store. We may have had various levels of interaction when I lived there, but now I spend my days and nights with them to learn what they will think and say. (I still need to spend more time with them to determine how they will act when they speak.)
I enter their minds when they converse with one another, leaving my reality behind. Through them, I gain experiences I will never have and say words I will never say. Hearing their responses, I drift further into their world, awaiting their next word. I am in awe of my characters as they interact, often surprised as the words reveal themselves and drive the story in unexpected directions.
Knowledge of the characters is essential to knowing how they will speak and how they will react to others who are speaking. It’s not simply knowing their backgrounds and demographics, it’s about finding their souls, looking deep inside to find what motivates them. To write dialogue, just dive into a conversation with a couple of characters who are in conflict or who have an agenda. The better you know them, the better the dialogue.