Forget my English degree, the last three years of webinars, classes and craft books have taught me about the rules of good dialogue in fiction. Of course, any ‘rules’ are like the Pirate Code, more like guidelines, really. Like the white lines on the highway. Ignore them at your own risk.
My starter-set for the rules of good dialogue include:
Clarity is king
Clarity comes at the top of every list of writing craft tips I make. Who is talking, what are they saying, how are they saying it? Statements of fact should naturally be clear. Everything else-opinion, motivation, bias, deception, counter-deception-needs to be added in layers, like lasagna. Otherwise you finish up with a tangle of spaghetti. Don’t leave it to the reader to untangle. They’ll probably get it wrong, and that’s not their fault, it’s yours.
Dialogue should be believable even if only in the context of the one story for which it’s written. Would someone actually say that? In this context? To the very person listening? And how would they respond? Are they ignoring the elephant in the room or otherwise burying the lead? Does it contain anachronisms, concepts, facts or references to past and future events the characters couldn’t possibly know about?
Dialogue should sound like real speech to the reader. Harrison Ford once said to George Lucas “You can type this stuff*, but you can’t say it.” Read your dialogue out loud and judge if that’s how a real person speaks. Then consider the impact of the character’s background, education, prejudices, biases, agenda, age, race, gender and social class. Does it still sound ‘real’ or ‘authentic’?
Cut the filler
Contradicting rule two for realism, written dialogue doesn’t need all the umms, errs, whats, likes, y’knows that humans use in speech to fill the gaps while they’re thinking. It’s ugly, it takes up valuable space and reading time, no one needs it. Unless you use it selectively to detail a character’s voice or emotional state. And it better be selective. A whole room of teenagers parroting like and y’know every thirty seconds is not good writing. Let the reader interpret. See also rule four.
Cut the small talk
Characters idly chit-chatting about the weather may be realistic, but it’s also dull, time-consuming and a waste of keystrokes. Unless there’s sub-text. Is there something else going on under the dialogue or through the dialogue that advances plot or character? Social-climbing? A coy courtship? The build-up to an argument or a making-up? When there’s no sub-text, small talk is pointless. When it’s a cypher for something else, it can be genius. See also rule five.
Some things are better left unsaid
This is what sub-text is for. The surface dialogue may leave out swathes of important plot and character points. It can be useful for highlighting what’s missing more than what is actually spoken: confessions, longings, declarations of love, guilt and regret. Or happiness, contentment, satisfaction.
Dialogue needs distinctive voices
The reader should be able to tell who is speaking from their distinctive voice. An old man and a child shouldn’t speak the same. Nor should a lawyer and a garbage collector. Or a wizard and a thief. Tone, vocabulary, flow, rhetoric, sentence construction: these all contribute to distinctive voices.
Tag your dialogue wisely
Some authors swear you should only use ‘said’ in the dialogue tags. Others insist you us anything but said. Some have banned words for dialogue tags, “he ejaculated.” Most avoid any adjectives modifying the dialogue tags with ‘-ly’ descriptors, “he said apprehensively.” There are no hard rules. Use whatever tagging works, but use it consistently and deliberately. Build it into the style of the writing, not as an unconscious tick. Recognise when it sounds intrusive, cheesy, or weakens the writing; he said, sternly.
Dialogue should contain meaningful information that progresses the plot. This is one of the most important rules. Dialogue has to matter, or else, why is it there? Random conversations about teaspoons don’t contribute to an existential debate about the nature of artificial reality. Okay, bad example. “There is no spoon.” This is a key plot point in The Matrix.
Breaking the fourth wall
Bad dialogue can ruin a good book, drawing attention to itself, taking the reader out of the immersive experience we value in fiction. Not to keep ragging on Jane Eyre, but the final chapter begins “Reader, I married him.” Talk about breaking the fourth wall and smacking you on the head with one of the bricks…
Good dialogue shows without telling
The old ‘show don’t tell rule’ applies to dialogue. It can deliver a lot of plot and character through conversation. One line of good dialogue can tell so much more of the story than three paragraphs of purple prose. It can do much heavy-lifting of plot and character in an efficient form. Bad dialogue can be a terrible device for telling us the plot; exposition in disguise.
Dialogue from Experience
Dialogue comes easier to some writer than others. A lot of my fiction starts with snippets of dialogue. They become cornerstones of scenes, chapters, even whole plots. It doesn’t mean all my dialogue is flawless.