Short story writing: dialogue
Dialogue, perhaps more than any other aspect of writing, is something one has to develop a feel for, but like other aspects, observing a few simple principles can help us on the way.
Dialogue is definitely not a representation of the way people really speak. Everyday speech is full of repetition and hesitation and mundane comments which are extremely tedious when written down.
"Good morning Janet, how are you?"
"Oh I'm fine thanks, how are you?"
"Not too bad thanks. Lovely weather today isn't it?" "Yes, gorgeous. Thank goodness that rain has stopped."
"Yes, I thought it would go on for ever. That's a nice dress you're wearing."
"Oh this old thing. I've had it for ages." "Did you watch any television last night?"
"Yes, I saw that film, it had that actor in it, what's his name? Oh goodness what is his name? It's on the tip of my tongue hold on a sec. . . . "
"No, um, hold on a sec, it's coming . . . "
The yawning restless reader will not hold on a sec - he will abandon the story.
Dialogue should always be used to convey something important to the plot, and should be a distillation, or edited version, of real speech. It conveys the rhythm and syntax of real speech at its best, with all the roughness and redundancy pared away.
Dialogue needs to convey information to the reader, but in a way which sounds natural. For example if Janet says to Mary:
"Have you heard that John Jones is coming to work for us?"
This line conveys to us that there is a character around called John Jones with whom Janet is acquainted, and it does so in a way which sounds perfectly natural.
Don’t overload dialogue with information. If you do it becomes conspicuous and sounds unnatural. For example:
"Have you heard that John Jones, the guy I met on holiday in Majorca last year but who already had a girlfriend and lived in Manchester is coming to work for us?"
Don't be reluctant, as some people seem to be, to put in 'he said', 'she said', 'said Janet', 'said John' after lines of dialogue, but on the other hand, don’t put them in too often. We don't need them after every line, but we do need enough to keep us in touch with who is speaking. In a scene with only two characters they can largely be dispensed with, but with three or more characters present the reader will get lost without them. They are much less conspicuous when read than they seem while writing them.
The main objective in writing modern short story dialogue is to keep it brief and to the point. Every word must count, and it must sound natural. Listen to it as you write, and write it as the character would say it.