Dialogue is hard to get right. It has to sound like natural speech, when in fact it’s nothing like it.
I like to send my creative-writing students out to cafes and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations. Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters.
Inevitably their written dialogue little resembles the overheard conversations. When you write dialogue, you have to eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter and cut to the core of the exchange — unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality. (The writer George Garrett called this “dovetailing.”) At the same time, it has to sound natural, like something someone would really say.
Richard Price, in his recent novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter. What they say changes the direction of the story. But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.” Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.
Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward. He constantly puts his characters in conflict with each other. Their conversations are full of surprises – self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence. But it sounds real: his characters’ speech has kinetic energy; it crackles with life. Real life.