Have you ever read stories where the people sound stilted? No one uses contractions, they pick high-falutin' terms when most people would use a shorter word, the words don't flow... In short, the book becomes a chore to trudge through.
What went wrong? In many cases, the writer tried to make the dialogue sound grammatically correct -- forgetting that most people (even editors) don't worry about grammar when speaking. Especially if they're upset or excited. Yes, people will speak in fragments, start sentences with "Because," end sentences with prepositions, and even use the word "ain't" now and then. It's true that every critique group has at least one person who will criticize stories because of "bad grammar" in your dialogue, when all you're trying to do is make the speech sound authentic. Don't let these critiques get you down. Remind yourself that it's clear these members don't truly understand the purpose of dialogue.
This sounds counterintuitive at first. How can dialogue sound authentic and yet not reflect real life closely? I'll give you the answer in a metaphor. The best dialogue is like vanilla extract. Instead of bottling every line of speech characters would use when speaking with each other, dialogue should give us the essence of their conversations.
Imagine if you started reading a romantic suspense novel, and the first exchange between the hero and heroine went like this...
"Hello," he said.
"Hi there," she replied.
"How are you doing?"
"Did you hear that Judge Stone was murdered?"
This sounds like some of the exchanges in the novels I wrote in high school. I hadn't yet learned that such dialogue is deadly dull. By the time readers learn that Judge Stone was murdered, they no longer care. They've put the book down and probably looked for something else to read.
What could improve this scene? Stripping out the trivial, extraneous exchanges that readers won't give a hoot about. Think back to a time in your life when someone told you something shocking. Do you remember whether or not they greeted you first? Or do you remember the stunner they shared with you?
Remember, novels aren't like real life. While in real life, people can talk about nothing, characters should have something to talk about. That's not to say you can't use mundane dialogue in your novel -- but use it sparingly. Even better, use it to express tension between characters. Imagine the increased tension if your ordinarily chatty hero and heroine resort to small talk after a misunderstanding.
Don't always let your characters respond directly to every spoken request or question. That doesn't have the ring of authenticity. For example, your heroine asks the hero "Where did you that book?" He could answer "In the library," and that would be all right but not too exciting. But there are so many other ways to answer that question, ranging from a teasing "I didn't know you were curious about the Kama Sutra" to a tense "Why do you want to know?" Even if he answers the question, he doesn't have to do so right away. Also, remember that women often answer questions with questions, so you can give your hero a hard time, too.
When characters are trying to get information out of other people, they should have to fight for every tidbit. I loved the romantic suspense novel Finding Laura (by Kay Hooper), but I thought some of the suspense was diffused because the hero's family was too forthcoming with the heroine. If people give direct answers to questions posted by other characters, you've lost a big opportunity for suspense. I made this mistake with one of my fantasy novels. In the first draft, every time the heroine asked questions of the villagers, someone answered her. This made those scenes dull as there wasn't enough tension. No one seemed to be even trying to withhold information.
Into each life some rain must fall. Sometimes your characters will drop a hammer on their foot or break a vase. How they react will tell readers a lot about those characters. It might give them the wrong impression of you as an author. If your characters spill out a long spiel of swear words every time something goes a little bit wrong, those characters will wind up sounding crude, and some readers might throw the book down in disgust. Yet if you have a murder victim shout "jeez" when he's shot, the effect will be silly. (You can only get away with that if you're Joel and Ethan Coen, the creative force behind "Fargo.")
It is sometimes necessary for characters to swear. If you're writing for a line that doesn't allow swearing, then don't push. Find a substitution, even if you have to say "He swore" instead of using dialect. Even if you're writing for a publisher that allows swear words, that doesn't mean your characters have to sound like sailors. First, swear words lose their impact if they're used too often. Second, if you're uncomfortable with cursing, then goshdarnit, your characters don't have to curse. But dangnabit, make sure they don't resort to using cute phrases such as "goshdarnit" and "dangnabit," unless you're writing romantic comedy. And for Heaven's sake, avoid overusing those cute phrases, or readers will get sick of hearing the heroine shout "Heavens to Betsy" every few paragraphs.
The best dialogue can do all three. This is a rule that's often broken by great writers, but before you can get away with breaking it, you have to understand why it exists. Recently, I reread one of my first stories. I thought it would be fun to reread, but I was disappointed in much of the dialogue. In the middle of a scene, my heroine Mildred and the housekeeper broke into an exchange about what my heroine wanted for dinner. I think they were the only two people in the world who cared about it. Readers never even got to see them eat this dinner, and the exchange had no point. It didn't advance the plot, and it told us nothing about Mildred except that she hated sour beef and dumplings.
But let's say you're writing a romantic mystery where several people are poisoned by arsenic in the sour beef and dumplings. Suddenly that exchange becomes crucial because the reader knows Mildred was spared because she didn't like the dish -- does this mean the killer poisoned that dish because he didn't want her to die? Or let's say the point of the scene is that Mildred's late father is a famous chef whose specialty was sour beef and dumplings, and Mildred confesses that no longer eats this dish because it brings back too many memories. Now the scene tells us something about Mildred's personality, not just about her food intake. It wouldn't take much work to use this exchange to move the plot forward while telling us something about Mildred and sharing the information about the food she likes.
Are you a witty author? Are you sure? If so, then you can get away with writing dialogue that doesn't advance the plot, doesn't tell us anything about the character, and doesn't provide information to the reader. But even if you can get away with it, why should you do this? Even the most sparkling dialogue won't help your story if it's completely empty of anything but wit.
Even though I just told you that dialogue should reveal information to the reader, that doesn't mean you should go too far with this. Do your best as a writer to avoid "infodumps." Infodumps are just what they sound like -- lumps of information shoved into your story. For example, in dialogue, infodumps are exchanges where characters lecture each other on something those characters already know. Even worse, the characters know that they all know about this. The most infamous infodumps are those that start out with "As you know..." If the character already knows about this, why is he telling her about it? The answer is simple. The author is trying to share this information to readers.
Infodumps are often more subtle than "as you know" scenes, though. You'll often come across novels where characters tell each other about facts rather than speaking like real people. After writing a scene where the dialogue provides information, read through it to make sure the characters sound natural. A scientist wouldn't turn to another scientist in her lab and say "We should analyze this sample by running a high performance liquid chromatography on it to separate the chemical compounds. " Instead, she would say, "Let's run HPLC on this sample." She would expect the other scientist to know what that means. You should expect your characters to know avoid saying the obvious to each other.
Dialogue should reflect what's going on around the characters. If the characters are angry with each other, the sentences should be short and blunt. On the other hand, if the heroine is trying to hide her anger, she might speak in terse yet polite sentences, or she might make her sentences longer than usual to avoid showing what she feels. What about characters in the middle of a chase scene or a gunfight? Their dialogue will be clipped -- a wasted word could cost someone their life.
Remember to use dialogue during the love scenes, too. For one thing, it can add wonderful variety to your love scenes. No reader wants a love scene to turn into one of those boring "Insert tab B into slot A" scenes. The characters should be lovers, not automatons. Dialogue is one way to show that love. You can use it to keep your characters communicating as they make love, to show their growth, to show the effect of the passion on them. Also, this is a great time for the curt hero to become poetic. Or for the talkative hero to suddenly fall silent when he sees the heroine undress before him for the first time.
Just as in real life, people don't sound alike. One of the hardest things to learn as a reader is how to make your characters sound like individuals when they speak. In my first drafts, secondary characters often sound alike. Yet characters should have distinctive speech patterns.
Luckily, some aspects of this are fairly easy to work out. You know that people from different walks of life will have different ways of speaking. A petty criminal will probably use street slang, and a wealthy society matron will make certain her speech is precise.
The subtleties of this will be more challenging. Often, more than one character will come from the same walk of life. For example, in a Regency , your heroine will probably come from a well-to-do family, as will the hero. If you characters don't find their individual voices, they could end up sounding alike. How do you avoid this? First, besides knowing their similarities, know their differences. Has the hero served in the army? His speech will be sprinkled with military slang. Is the heroine a bluestocking who studies ancient myths and legends? She will probably use phrases from the classics when she talks. Don't forget the differences between the sexes. In most eras, there are some slang terms that men will use, words that the heroine would never dare speak.
There are two main reasons to avoid dialect. First, most writers don't understand the dialect well enough to write it. Dialect written by people who don't "get it" often comes across as stilted, or worse, offensive. Second, and most important, even if you know the dialect well, your readers will keep bumping into your words.
If you do decide that you need to use dialect, do not use phonetic spellings, and do not drop the g's in words ending with ing. For example, yer pirate villain, I mean your pirate villain, should not say, "Yer not foolin' me!" Words like that are extremely awkward to read. So you want the reader to get a sense that this is a pirate speaking? Then study up on the era and sprinkle the dialogue with authentic pirate slang of the time.
For an example of an author who used dialogue well, read the historical novel Shield of Three Lions by Pamela Kaufman. When the heroine Alix first meets the Scotsman Enoch Angus Boggs, she can barely understand a word he says because of his thick brogue. As the novel goes on, his brogue becomes less heavy, showing the natural development as Alix gets used to the brogue and as Enoch becomes used to speaking in English. For an example of a more recent book where the dialect got in the way of many readers' enjoyment, check out Mercedes Lackey's fantasy novel Take a Thief. For most of that book, the hero Skif speaks in the cant of the streets. Although Lackey eased into the dialect, some readers still found this book too hard to get into.
If you can write good dialogue without following these rules, then go for it. As long as the text flows and the reader accepts that these are real people are speaking to each other, the dialogue will have served its purpose. If you're just starting out, however, I wouldn't suggest breaking all the rules at once.