Bad dialogue explains. Good dialogue reveals. Great dialogue exposes what it unknown to those speaking.
One of the most frequent criticisms of dialogue is that it’s heavy-handed or on-the-nose—characters say precisely what they think and feel.
In life, people don’t come right out and say, "I feel angry"… "I’m afraid of being hurt"… "You are my destiny." Fearing humiliation, we grab at conscious and unconscious ploys to protect ourselves. We choose humor, cynicism, distraction, even silence over vulnerability. Dialogue, then, should be evasive, translucent versus transparent. Good dialogue relies on subtext—where meaning and emotion aren’t overtly stated.
The following example shows characters telling too much.
“Dad, those kids at school are beating me up and taking my lunch money again,” said the son.
“I’m going to call your principal.”
“You already went in once. He didn’t do anything except talk to them, and they said they didn’t do it.”
Characters who know each other well don’t spell everything out.
“They did it again.”
“I’ll call the principal.”
Will readers know what they’re talking about in the second version? Maybe, maybe not. That doesn’t mean the writer should obliterate their familiarity. On the contrary, he should work with it. He might have the dad say, “That’s it—you’re going to jujitsu.” Since people who need to protect themselves often turn to martial arts, context begins to fill in the gaps. Then again, the writer could employ other devices. He might choose visual clues, like giving the son a bloody nose or a torn shirt. Whichever the writer opts for is valid, so long as he doesn’t steal from the authenticity of the exchange.
Rather than scripting your characters to say what you need them to say, climb into their skin and write from their viewpoint. You might find they’ll surprise you by saying or doing something you wouldn’t have scripted. Not only will your characters come alive, but their dialogue will rivet readers to their story.
"Look, I know I should have invited you to my party!" he yelled. "But you hate my parties. You refused to move in with me. You never want to do anything fun anymore. Ever since you bought that old movie house, you are as outdated as the classic movies you show there. And when it comes to sex . . . let’s not even go there. You never want to try anything new."
"Maybe because I’m tired after running the classic movie theater all day."
"Which you’re always rubbing in my face. I have money, too. I bought this house. I run it. So what if I don’t have a real job?"
Think back to a past break up. How much explanation did you offer? Chances are that you didn’t list every problem in complete sentences. The dialogue above is fact dumping, which is why it sounds artificial.
A king says to his counselor, “I have ruled for thirty years. In all that time, our enemies have been attacking our borders. Our people have resisted, and thousands have died. Now once more our gates are under siege.”
Who talks like that? Characters should be as engrossed in what’s happening around them as you or I are. We don’t fill our mouths with background when the house is on fire. The king and everyone within earshot knows about the Thirty Years War. What they would be talking about, if the situation were real or written well, is potental solutions to the problem. That’s what readers want to read about—the present story, how people react and what they plan to do. Not backstory.
Good dialogue works by implication—not on the sum definition of words, but on the choice of words that dance around full disclosure. The tone of a comment, how it’s phrased, and the hesitation with which it emerges suggests a feeling estranged from what the character gives voice to.
The master of dialogue, Hemingway’ short story Hills Like White Elephants gives us a fantastic example. Composed almost entirely of dialogue, we meet "the man" and "the girl" sitting at a train station bar gazing out at a chain of mountains.
"They look like white elephants," she says.
"I’ve never seen one," the man says, and drinks his beer.
"No, you wouldn’t have."
"I might have," the man says. "Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything."
She’s angry and aggressive. He’s determined to have his way. They order drinks. They quarrel over the taste of Anis del Toro. He tries to make peace and, for the moment, succeeds. They repeat this sequence—make nice, make quarrel—as the dialogue gradually reveals that what he wants is for her to go through with the abortion he’s planned and what she wants is reassurance that, afterward, things will again be like they used to be.
"I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in." The girl does not reply. "I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural."
They bond again briefly, agreeing that the mountains aren’t really like white elephants. But then he returns to the "perfectly natural" argument. He cajoles. He persists. She agrees to do it. She gives in, sullen, but it is not enough for him. He wants her to want it.
"I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way."
It’s a maddening go-round. She walks away and stares at the mountains. He follows her, saying, "It’s perfectly simple." It is all too much for her.
"Would you please please please please please please please stop talking."
The woman’s hysteria passes. The train is coming, and the characters resume their public faces. Nothing is resolved, yet we understand that the man wins. She will have the abortion. As the dialogue suggests, they will hate each other forever. Notice that the abortion, the procedure, is only alluded to. This emphasizes their unease with the topic. Since it’s on both of their minds, vocalizing it would be unnatural. A lesser writer might assume that readers need a set up, but Hemingway is well versed in life. His approach is both realistic and satisfying.
And Hemingway proves that the lines our characters deliver can carry a story’s plot. In Hills Like White Elephants, as with most of his work, he sets the scene, delineates the characters, fills in the background, propels the action, creates the crisis, and resolves the story—all through dialogue.