Dialogue is what sells your characters and makes them believable. That’s what makes your story believable. Most writers understand this is important, and try to write good dialogue. This is where they get in trouble, because that’s not how we talk.
Credible dialogue is not linear. It is more like a bad tennis match, ranging all over the court. Further, people don’t talk specifically about what they are thinking. They approach it indirectly:
“That’s a lot of food.”
“What, I’m too fat?
“No, they serve large portions here.”
A few quick points:
• Two people talking are saying ONE thing (the topic). They each say a part, so break up the conversation between characters accordingly. The bits should not match evenly. In fact the worse they match the more realistic it will be.
• People step on each other in conversation all the time.
• They don’t speak in perfect grammar or tenses, because they are (we hope) thinking, observing, listening and talking — and having emotions, all at the same time. That’s a lot of things.
They assume the other person is following, so they can skip certain things. This can be challenging in a novel where you have multiple characters who need to learn new information but you certainly don’t want to repeat it for each of the characters who walk into the room. To me Len Deighton is the god of exposition, check out his Bernard Samson series. There are 10 volumes which you can read independently even though they tell one rather long story, yet you never feel like he is repeating information.
Conversation breathes. That’s why writers still mourn the death of cigarettes. They gave conversation breathing room.
If you are serious about improving your dialogue, write in screenplay style, even if you are not so interested in writing screenplays. It forces you to pay a lot of attention to dialogue.
Turi knocks on the door. “Nico my son, we only have one bathroom…this is why we never had a daughter…
Nico, styling his hair, opens the door. “Sorry Dad… Dad… how did you ever land a babe like mom?”
Now, for your homework. Carry a notebook, everywhere. Or use the “Notes” app on your phone. Write down fragments of conversation. Two girls in a coffee shop. A professor chewing out a student. Whatever.
When you get home, extend the conversations in your notebook (or write what came before). Try and emulate the rhythm and style, rather than worrying about extending the story.
Stop at natural stopping points. Try really hard not to think about plot. If you practice this diligently, you’ll see improvement in your dialogue. And take pleasure in listening. A friend and I used to sit in coffee shops in Tennessee just to listen to the old-timers talk. The expressions they used were worth diamonds. Write down what you can.
Now if you are writing a character who speaks in dialect or has a heavy accent, or English is their second language, tread carefully. Think of it like a strong spice, a little bit goes a long way.
Practice. Write different versions of the same conversation. Observe how your emphasis can completely change the meaning. Challenge yourself to minimize attribution and adverbs. Let the dialogue do its job.
You will often read that each scene or chapter should advance your plot, or story, and this is true, but for this exercise the goal is to write natural exchanges which convince the reader they are there in the scene with real people.