Writing good dialogue is hard work. The labor that goes into creating the conversations characters in a story have with one another often sends many a capable writer to their whiskey. Dialogue can fall flat. If there are several characters in a story talking at the same time, it can make for a confusing reading experience. Dialogue can also sound forced or unbelievable. With these reasons and many more it is a wonder why more writers do not write stories with nothing but narration. I’m glad most of us do not. I like to believe that the work of writing good dialogue, while difficult, adds layers of richness to the stories we write.
For those of us who write, there are certain ways we deal with the problem of creating good dialogue. Sometimes we write as little dialogue as possible. Sometimes we write the first draft of the story and during revising and editing we add dialogue to the prose we create. Just like the rest of the writing process, there are few short cuts to crafting dialogue that is effective. Earlier in my writing career, if a line of dialogue worked—it was successful because it made a reader laugh or think—I often contributed that success to dumb luck. Today, as I continue to work on the craft of writing, I no longer want to depend on the faulty foundation of chance to deliver dialogue that reads well. I want to include dialogue in the prose that I write that jumps off the page and gives the reader details about the characters I am writing about.
I subscribe to the thought that dialogue serves two basic purposes in a story: the advancement of a plot and the revelation of a character’s motives and thoughts. Like most writers I understand well the harsh and often unforgiving nature of the short story. The short story is an intense experience. There is not enough time or pages for false starts or digressions. A short story must burn bright with the opening lines and end at the right spot. The short stories I have written before where the dialogue was considered good, but did not advance the story often caused me moments of acute creativity distress. The short story teaches the writer to remove the unnecessary and to articulate the emotions characters feel. Good dialogue also gives the writer the opportunity to reveal of another aspect of a character. The best lines of dialogue I have read always provided me with a truth in the story that narration simply could not. Good dialogue matters because at the end of the day as writers we want to create characters that are so engaging that readers do not want the story to end. Engaging characters invite readers to listen to the words they say.
When I was enrolled in a creative writing class, the professor gave me advice about creating good dialogue. To this day I hold each and every line of dialogue I write to the standard I learned from him. One day we sat in the professor’s office and he answered the endless amounts of questions I had for him. When the subject of dialogue came up, he paused, and smiled. “Good dialogue sounds right to the ear.” And with that sound writing tip, I have found myself writing dialogue more confidently because I have a better understanding of how to write dialogue. Of course I am far from being a master of writing good dialogue, but my creative writing professor’s advice makes creating good dialogue more manageable. Good dialogue that sounds right to the ear is both a special gift and a small miracle.
Devan Burton’s chapbook, In Quiet Hours, will be available on Amazon this December.