“Hello,” Michael said. “Anna, it’s been nearly seventeen years since I’ve last seen you. My, you look the same. Brown hair, brown eyes, about five feet, six inches.”
“Hi Michael,” Anna said. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. I’ve recently gotten divorced. My husband had one of his buddies handle our divorce and they are trying to make sure I don’t get anything. But other than that, I still work at Overlook Hospital. Also Lisa, you remember, my youngest daughter, she is in pre-school, but…”
In one of my previous articles, “Before You Submit“, I mentioned that one of the questions you should ask yourself is “Is the dialogue real?” This question doesn’t just apply to short stories, it also applies to any form (novel, non-fiction, etc.). Nothing kills dramatic tension in a scene like dialogue that’s too weighty, too overloaded with information, or too didactic.
The good thing about dialogue is that it is a craft that can be learned and perfected. Here are a few things that can help you improve the dialogue in your story:
1. Eavesdrop. You can learn so much about speech patterns, about how people talk, and how they reveal information about themselves.
Overheard at a café as I type this:
Guy #1: “It’s going to suck.”
Guy #2: “But she’s… trust me. It’s just better if you tell her, man.”
Guy #1: “You don’t know her. Like you met her, but you don’t know her.”
I am not sure what they are talking about, but from the snippets, I can guess: relationship issues, problems with mother, problems with a close female friend. Guy #1 has a secret. Guy #2 is sympathetic to his secret, perhaps even empathetic. Also, their use of terms of endearment such as “man” and fillers such as “like” hint their age range.
Eavesdropping allows you to understand how dialogue reveals relationships between people. There is a certain way people address one another based on their relationship and how much they know (or do not know).
2. Refine. Although eavesdropping is great for understanding people’s interactions, we talk a lot. In real life, it’s okay to meander. In a story, the dialogue should do one of two things: move the story forward and/or reveal character.
3. Listen. Once you think you have dialogue that fits in the conversation, you must do two things. First, read it silently to make sure it fits. Ask yourself the following questions: Is it necessary within the framework of the story? Is it true to the character? Is it true to the character’s diction? Second, read it aloud. Does it sound natural to your ears? If it sounds unnatural to your ears, chances are it will sound unnatural to a reader.
“Yes, I do feel fine” sounds different than “Yeah, I feel okay” or “I’m feeling” or even “Feelin’ good” or “I’m just chilling.”
Make sure one of your revisions solely focuses on dialogue.