Nathan Bransford reports:
"[D]ialogue is one of the very most crucial elements in a novel. Great dialogue can make a novel sing. Bad dialogue can sink it like a stone...When the dialogue is carrying exposition and trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of very unnatural and unwieldy things...Exposition and dialogue only really mesh when one character genuinely doesn't know what the other character is telling them and it's natural for them to explain at the moment they're explaining it. Otherwise, if you're just trying to smush in info, your reader is going to spot it a mile away...A good conversation is an escalation. The dialogue is about something and builds toward something. If things stay even and neutral, the dialogue just feels empty. Characters in a novel never just talk. There's always more to it...good writers leave out the boring parts. This goes doubly for dialogue: it's usually best to cut to the chase rather than spending time on the pleasantries that normal people use in everyday conversation. In real life our conversations wander around all over the place, and a transcribed real life conversation is a meandering mess of free association and stutters. In a novel, a good conversation is focused and has a point. And in a novel, dialect, slang, and voice is used sparingly. Just a hint of flavor is enough...Human beings are not very articulate creatures. Despite all the words at our disposal, words tend to fail us at key moments, and even when we know what we want to say we spend a whole lot of time trying to describe and articulate what we feel without being quite able to do it properly. We misunderstand, overemphasize, underemphasize, grasp at what we mean, and conversations go astray. So when two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking to each other, it doesn't seem remotely real. Good dialogue is instead comprised of attempts at articulation...[T]his shouldn't be taken too far and a conversation shouldn't be an endless string of misunderstandings...but the way in which characters express their feelings and how they articulate what they're feeling is one of the most important ways of revealing character. Are they reserved? Boisterous? Do they bluster? Hold back? Characters who say exactly what they mean are generic. Characters who talk around their emotions and objectives are much more interesting...Interjections and grunts are kind of like carpet cleaning concentrate. They must be diluted or you'll burn a hole in the floor...Out there on the Internet it has lately become trendy for people to advocate stripping books of dialogue tags so that the person who is speaking is solely apparent through gestures and context...As long as you mainly stick to said and asked, your reader won't notice they're there, and they'll be way better able to track who is saying what. Yes, don't overdo dialogue tags and look for ways to add meaningful gesture and action to back and forths, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater...There's nothing worse than reading a stretch of dialogue where the characters are saying precisely what we think they're going to say. The best dialogue counters our expectations and surprises us."
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