Lee Child, James Scott Bell, Jon Land, Joseph Flynn, Jim Duncan Heywood Gould and I are talking on the ITW Site this week about how to craft dialog that reflects character. It's an interesting discussion. Here's a tidbit:
You are what you say.
Dialogue is character. If you know who your characters are, where they come from and what they want, then you know what they will say in a given situation. Characters are not one dimensional. They don’t speak the same way to everyone in their lives. A cop will not speak the same way to his wife and kids as he does to his colleagues or to suspects.
Dialogue is strategy. Do your characters decide to coax. coerce, seduce, charm to get what they want. Dialogue will expresses their strategy.
Dialogue is style. People use dialogue to project an image of themselves. Do they want to be considered smart, funny, professional, truthful. They will use dialogue to show that they belong to a certain group—political party, profession, gang…
The best lines are often the ones drawn from real life. I like to eavesdrop. People say things a writer could never make up. A conversation can crystallize a character. I like to draw people out. The best advice I ever got was from my City Editor at the NY Post:
“Shut up and listen.”
I once won an award from the Fort Worth evening newspaper (I think it was) for “natural dialog” … which mine isn’t … and nor is anyone else’s. Dialog in books is very far from natural. Many above have extolled eavesdropping, which I love too, and it’s very instructive to notice how incoherent, stumbling, gappy and repetitive real-life conversation is. If we were “natural”, a book would be 1,000 pages long.
So the trick is to make something grossly unnatural sound natural. And it’s very hard to do that. The “X” factor is subtle and elusive. I think we all agree that dialog is where poor books fail. Poor dialog sounds amateur. Good dialog can suggest stress, accent, and pace, just with a few black marks on white paper.