My views on rules for writing have been documented on this site far too many times, but certainly there are things that many writers do that can be useful, and when it comes to dialogue, I think there’s a few things that are often worth keeping in mind.
One of those rules I dislike is that everything should be driving your story forward. With novels like Succession of Power, I certainly liked to keep things pacy. Thrillers often lend themselves to that. And for them, the dialogue can often be terse, short, sharp and right to the point. But would that be true for a romantic novel, or a coming of age drama? Even many thrillers work because the author takes her time to help establish a relaxed pace. Phooey to the rules.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that exposition is important in dialogue, but often it’s not as important to our readers as we may think it is. A sense of authenticity matters more: even if it’s manufactured authenticity. Yeah. Fake authenticity. Kind of a contradiction in terms isn’t it? But it’s a fine line that lots of great dialogue treads.
In real life, people seldom just say what they mean. We’re complicated creatures, using a sophisticated communication style to convey subtle and complex ideas and information. We usually talk around subjects. That’s why dialogue that hits the concept of theme right on the nose sounds wrong so much of the time.
Here’s a tip – not a rule, you know what I think about rules – that might be helpful. If people seldom say exactly what they mean, try to get your characters to do the same. Let them tell us everything we need without always actually saying exactly the right words. Just like in the real world. If that means driving down the pace a little, then do it. Create a world that’s more believable.
Often you’ll find you need to use the dialogue for exposition or to tell us something, and you don’t want to do it any other way. Great. Do it. But even then, I’d try and write it in a way that feels authentic. A kind of heightened realism if you will. But don’t worry about trying to do this all the time. If you’re like me, you’ll try and do this a lot in a plot-driven, fast-paced story. But even in those novels, I try and create as many situations and scenes as I can when the actions and feelings of characters contradict the actual words. I do it because we all do it all the time. It helps create a powerful picture in our readers minds, and they’re the ones that count.
Just a final thought, because I’ve rambled on far too long here: Here is a little tip you might want to try out that could give your characters more distinctive dialogue: imagine them to be real people. People you know is great, or if not, characters from movies and TV shows. But if it’s not someone you know, try not to be too obvious in picking a famous character. Picture the face, the mannerisms. Even if you don’t describe these things in much detail (because while we’re on the subject of ignoring rules, don’t forget to ignore the “show don’t tell” one as often as you can), you start to build intuitively in your own mind a better picture of what the character is like.
And in doing so, I find it’s way easier to figure out what they sound like, and how they will communicate things, directly or indirectly.