I think that dialogue is very important in fiction. It can make the characters seem more real than they would otherwise be if what they said was merely described.
An example from every day life: a friend tells me that he’s had an argument with his girlfriend, and leaves it at that. How much more real (and interesting) the argument becomes if he says, “She said to me . . . . and I said to her . . . . but then she said . . . well, then I replied . . . .”
Dialogue also helps to define the characters; we know them better when we hear them speak. For example: two characters have a headache. One of them says, “Oh, I feel poorly today. I’ve got one of my headaches. I’ve taken some tablets, but it’s still there, throbbing away.”
The other character says, “I’ve got a bit of a headache at the moment. Nothing to worry about. I’ve taken a couple of tablets and it’ll be gone soon.”
You might say that the first character is a bit of a hypochondriac and a pessimist. The second character you might decide is an optimist with a stiff upper lip.
Good dialogue can also move the story forward. Facts, impressions, attitudes and values can be revealed. Decisions can be taken (or not).
The dialogue I write is probably a bit artificial in the sense that real people seldom speak so concisely. We all tend to use a lot of extra words when we’re talking. Rather than telling someone, “I saw a fox in my garden this morning!” We’ll say, “I saw a big red fox in the back of my garden this morning! You know, right where I have those white chrysanthemums, to the left of the garden furniture.” The essential facts are contained in the first message: we can visualise a red fox in a flower bed. The second message is friendlier than the first: it’s reminding the listener that s/he knows the garden, and since s/he knows the garden s/he is certainly a friend. But for the reader (who probably doesn’t care about the layout of the garden), it has too much information, and therefore invites that deadly criticism: boring!
Here is a piece of dialogue from Fishing in Foreign Seas. Jamie has just lost a huge order and his wife, Caterina, has just discovered something in his desk.
She didn’t answer, left the room and returned with a small piece of paper. She gave it to him and asked: “What’s this?”
His premonition suddenly turned to dread; ‘Oh shit, why didn’t I throw that away?’ he thought, but he said: “It’s an advertisement for a bit of jewellery.”
“I can see that! And why was it in your desk?” Her tone was cold, and her face was hostile – untrusting, as she looked, unflinchingly, at him.
“I was going to buy it for someone” He paused. “but . . . .”
She cut in: “Did you buy it?”
“Yes,” he said softly, eyes on the floor, anticipating the next question.
‘I’ll have to tell her,’ he thought, ‘maybe she knows – anyway, no good to lie.’ His eyes were still on the floor.
“FOR WHOM?” she repeated.
Softly, he said: “It was a birthday present for Mary Beth.”
“A birthday present? For five hundred dollars? For your secretary?” She was almost shouting now. Her face was red with anger.
“Well,” he responded lamely, “she gave me those nice trout cuff links, and I . . .”
“Those ‘nice trout cuff links’ couldn’t have cost her more than fifty dollars! But you, Jamie, felt you had to give her a present worth ten times as much!”
He said nothing.
“What’s going on between you two?” Her voice was insistent, now.
“Some nothing!” she shouted. “You give your pretty, young secretary with big boobs a five hundred dollar bracelet covered with hearts!” She paused, studying him. Then, in a low voice, she asked: “are you in love with her?”
“I don’t believe you!”
“Caterina, I swear to you – No!” He paused. “I just . . . “
Her anger returned. “YOU JUST WHAT?”
“Have you f***ed her?” She spat out the words.
He recoiled with shock: “No.”
“I don’t believe you! . . . Your pretty young secretary with big boobs reminds you of Alice – doesn’t she? . . . I looked at Alice’s picture in your Yale year book, today. They could be sisters!”
“I haven’t . . .” he faltered.
“You haven’t what?”
“I haven’t had sex with Mary Beth.”
“But you were hoping to, weren’t you?” Her malice was evident.
He nodded. “Oh, Caterina, I’m so sorry. I really am.”
She ignored him: “why didn’t you?”
“Why didn’t I what?”
“Why didn’t you f*** her, you bastard?”
“Because . . . because she said ‘no’.”
“She said ‘no’?” she asked, incredulously, “at least she has a little sense to go along with her big boobs . . . When did this happen?”
“Last night when she asked you to go to that country bar and she asked you to go to bed with her, but she changed her mind?”
“She didn’t ask me, but she said ‘no’.”
“So you asked her. You were feeling low because of your precious Mid America, you tried to have a pick me up with your pretty young secretary. But she wouldn’t have it.”
He said nothing.
“Why didn’t you come to me?”
He looked truly forlorn. “I don’t know, Caterina. . . . I’m so sorry!”
She suddenly turned, walked away, went upstairs, and he heard their bedroom door slam.
What happens in this dialogue is a role reversal between Jamie and Caterina. Jamie, the ever-confident, masterful husband is reduced to a shamed, naughty child. And Caterina, the beautiful, compliant wife, fuelled by her anger, suddenly takes charge.
(For more information about my novels, see www.williampeace.net.)