"Dialogue in fiction is what characters do to one another."
Dialogue is adversarial. That doesn’t mean shouting. Adversarial dialogue can be subtle. Leverage confrontation, suspicion, opposition, and refusal to raise the volume (metaphorically speaking). Readers love when dialogue throws sparks. Here’s an example from a story by Richard Bausch. The exchange is between a wife waking a husband who has to wake his children.
"Casey," she said.
"I’m up," he told her.
"Don’t just say I’m up."
"I am up," Casey said, "I’ve been up since five forty-five."
"Well, good. Get up up."
Sometimes, of course, the most effective dialogue culminates in silence. This is more than irony. It’s what characters do to one another.
“You… conceive of dialogue as the disturbance on the surface that occurs as the result of tectonic shifts beneath.”
In life, people prefer harmony to conflict, but when we sit down to read a novel, we want drama, excitement, suspense. That means scenes must tighten the screws until the tension is unbearable. Two lovers murmuring sweet nothings lacks tension. Even in action scenes, readers need more than characters shooting at each other. Soldiers are trained to obey without question, but what happens when a soldier suspects his captain gets off on glory and at the expense of his men? Give us conflict.
Dialogue should serve this purpose. It’s the most visible interaction between characters. It’s happening now. It’s unpredictable. It expresses character. It’s what makes fiction unforgettable.
Pick up a good novel and flip through to a passage of dialogue. You’ll see that it’s argumentative to some degree. Even when characters are friends, lovers, colleagues, or companions, give your dialogue an edge.
Sol Stein advises that all fictional dialogue be either adversarial or interrogation. Every time the main character encounters someone, it should further the plot. By giving characters agendas and making the dialogue combative, you don’t have to turn friends into enemies. And it’s effective even when the topic of conversation seems mundane, as in this example from J.D. Salinger’s “Just Before the War with the Eskimos”. Ginnie and Selena are riding home in a cab after playing tennis, when Ginnie says—
“Hey, Selena. . .”
“What?” asked Selena, who was busy feeling the floor of the cab with her hand. “I can’t find the cover to my racket!” she moaned.
Despite the warm May weather, both girls were wearing topcoats over their shorts.
“You put it in your pocket,” Ginnie said. “Hey, listen–”
“Oh, God! You saved my life!”
“Listen,” said Ginnie, who wanted no part of Selena’s gratitude.
Ginnie decided to come right out with it. The cab was nearly at Selena’s street. “I don’t feel like getting stuck with the whole cab fare again today,” she said. “I’m no millionaire, ya know.”
When writing dialogue, let your characters confront one another. Put them at cross-purposes. You have only one protagonist and one point of view, but that doesn’t mean secondary characters aren’t preoccupied with their struggles.
Dialogue Is Relevant
Dialogue is something that happens. It takes place in space and time, and is both a result and a cause that spur change, movement. When characters speak, they create situations that affect themselves and others, which causes reactions that lead to events. The stakes rise, the stakes fall. Dialogue is a force at work. What happens, then, when an event resulting from dialogue has nothing to do with the plot? It’s the source of detour. That’s what happens.
The writer must be aware of the cause and effect of dialogue just as he trains his eye on the ramifications of action.
Damon and Affleck do this with Will’s dialogue in the Harvard bar scene, not only creating immediate repercussions, but the remainder of the story follows. Because Will showed off his intellect, loyalty to friends, and finesse for averting a fight, he wins Minnie Driver’s character in his life, and she has a profound effect on him. He eventually leaves his outgrown world to be with her.
Dialogue Delivers News But Once
Remember, too, that information is news only once, so don’t repeat it, even if a situation calls for repeating.
Let’s say, for example, that Marg knows Steph is pregnant. She tells Lucy, who is as surprised as readers are. But Max enters the scene, and it’s important for him to learn that Steph’s pregnant. Marg tells Max, who’s shocked… but readers are stuck waiting for the story to continue. What’s the solution? Deliver the information piecemeal, with each episode providing missing details, details that readers are craving to hear. It will keep them engaged and move the story forward.