So you've spent oodles of time developing the perfect plot, choosing the location, the time period, etc...got it all worked out. And then your protagonist steps up to the plate, opens his cake hole and out flows....ummm, cookies? Or marbles, or worse yet, some lengthy diatribe worthy of a Shakespearean nightmare! This guy doesn't know when to shut up! Or what to say, or how to say it. How do you get this monster under control?
Well, guess what folks? Dialogue is...you guessed it--another tool! And while your character may have lots to say about everything, you control what actually goes on record. So here are a few simple tricks on how to use dialogue to further your plot.
1. Dialogue should be a natural outcropping of your story. And here, time and location are important elements. Obviously, Hamlet would never say, "Dang, Papa, we got to go kill us some woodchucks for supper"! On the other hand, Tom Sawyer might have said exactly those words. Dialogue can tell alot about setting and atmosphere. It adds color and flavor to any piece. Conversely, you must consider the modern day reader. Most wouldn't understand Shakespeare without considerable time and effort, so you may have to temper it, just a bit.
2. It must be interesting...have conflict and emotion, and purpose. Anyone who's ever spent countless hours on facebook, in a sense eavesdropping on a dozen different dialogues, only to x out of it feeling unfullfilled and desperately wishing for those hours back will understand this. Therefore, leave out the mundane, 'hi, how are you's' and only include dialogue that furthers your plot.
3. Avoid long speeches and dull 'information only' pieces: Only Shakespeare can get away with speeches, and newsflash: you ain't Shakespeare! Additonally, dialogue is not the place for backstory or lengthy theory. These things should be artfully worked into the story, a bit at a time, and camoflaged if possible. Just a spoon full of sugar, and all that.
4. Lighten up! Avoid being overly formal, particularly in contemporary pieces. If you wouldn't say it that way, then your character probably wouldn't either. Read it out loud if you need to; does it sound natural to you?
5. Use contractions. I'm, we'll, we've, instead of I am, we will, we have. Less formal, in many cases, equals more natural.
6. Fashion your dialogue after your character. Is he shy, assertive, educated? Or poor, unschooled, and rough? His conversation will reflect all this and more about him if you let it.
7. All characters are different and all have their own particular nuances. When you get good enough at writing dialogue, it's sometimes unneccessary to even point out who is saying it.
8. Avoid crappy tags whenever possible: Ie...stated, questioned, replied, said gingerly, or in a million other 'ly' ways. If at all possible, just use 'said'. Bob said... Why? Cuz tags get distracting very, very quickly. 'Said' blends in. It's one of those words that you forget the second you read it. And you want your readers to think about and remember what's actually said, rather than the one hundred plus synonyms for saying it.
9. Pay attention to what your characters are saying. For instance: if you're using dialogue as a tool to impart imformation, and Bob says to his wife, "As you know, our only son is turning eighteen today..." Well, that either makes Bob look like a total putz, or points that big, old, amateur finger at you, the writer. Bob needs to keep it real.
10. Modifiers in conversation: see discussion on modifiers!
11. Women speak differently than men. And that's just a fact. If you need an explanation...go ask yer mother!
This list is not all inclusive...but it's a good start. And in case you're wondering, the dialogue police will be around--checking on you dailey, and writing citations whenever neccessary. Don't be 'that guy'!