I saw the The Avengers recently, and the dialogue was so wonderful as to bring tears to my eyes. I've been watching far too much television and suffering through its clunky, wooden dialogue. CSI, I'm looking at you.
It might be a little hyperbolic, but for me nothing pulls down a story
faster than bad -- or even mediocre -- dialogue. I may be overly sensitive. And I've always
been frustrated by my inability to put a finger on just what it is that
works or doesn't work, so this week I'm going to try to and I'd love to have your two cents, too.
Nothing in your story exists in a vacuum. All the aspects are cross-woven and anchored on each other. Dialogue derives from a number of other aspects of the story, and also is constrained by both reality and what the story needs. I'm not going to hit all the aspects, but here's what I'm trying for:
Dialogue derives from the character speaking it. You already know this: a hard-core surfer chick does not talk like an Oxford professor. An senior politician does not sound like an illegal immigrant struggling to learn English. Lawyers and short order cooks have completely different vocabularies.
Dialogue derives from culture. The ideas available to your characters, the priorities they've been told to have, their entire frame of reference -- all derive from the world-building.
How people actually speak vs. useful dialogue
There's a gap between what people mean and the words they say. You can drive a Mack truck through it, sometimes. As writers, we naturally suffer from the urge to be as clear as possible because reader confusion is deadly. Unfortunately, absolute clarity in dialogue can also be deadly because people just don't talk that way. It drains all the life from the dialogue.
And then there's the problem of getting out the information you need the reader to see.
Research vs. development
Dialogue styles can be researched, and should be in many cases. A general appreciation of etymology and the history of the English language can be very useful. However, letting your characters be involved in developing their voices is just as important.
Let's talk about talk. Let's crit some talk. Send up to
500 words of speechifying with "Dialogue" in the subject line to:
email@example.com before Thursday, May 31. I will post something of my own on Saturday for everyone to attack, if nothing else.