You need social skills to have a conversation in real life -- but they're quite different from the skills you need to write good dialogue. Educator Nadia Kalman suggests a few "anti-social skills," like eavesdropping and muttering to yourself, that can help you write an effective dialogue for your next story.
E.B. White wrote, “The best writing is rewriting.” With that idea in mind, look at a few of the examples of ineffective dialogue in the blog post, “Bad Dialogue – Bad, Bad Dialogue,” by Beth Hill, at http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/11/03/bad-dialogue-bad-bad-dialogue/
Now, select one example to rewrite and improve. If it’s repetitive, eliminate the repetition. If it’s too formal or stilted, mutter to yourself until you come up with a more natural-sounding version. If it’s too long, eliminate inessential parts. Who knows? You may be inspired to write a new story around your rewritten dialogue.
The author Mark Twain is considered a master of dialogue, but his use of dialect – and particularly his phonetic rendering of African-American speech in the novel Huckleberry Finn – is the subject of controversy. For some perspectives on this issue, take a look at:
- An overview of various attitudes towards the novel in the PBS teachers’ guide to Huck Finn: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/teachers/huck/aboutbook.html
- Leslie Gregory’s article, “Finding Jim Behind the Mask,” in Ampersand, available at http://itech.fgcu.edu/&/issues/vol1/issue1/huckfinn.htm
- Webb Harris Jr.’s article, “Teaching Huck Finn Without Regret,” published by the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, available at http://www.tolerance.org/activity/teaching-huck-finn-without-regret
To consider this question for yourself, you can read Huckleberry Finn at http://www.literature.org/authors/twain-mark/huckleberry/, and journal about your reactions to the dialogue between Huck and Jim (for example, in Chapter 9). It might be useful to compare and contrast the conversations between Huck and Jim to the conversations between Huck and Tom.
Listen to the podcast, “Writing Accents and Dialects,” on the Grammar Girl website at http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/writing-with-accents.aspx. Would you ever use dialect in your own writing? Why or why not? If you do plan on using dialogue, how will you avoid some of the pitfalls this article describes?
For imagined conversations between H.G. Wells and other famous writers from the past, listen to Paul F. Tompkins’s The Dead Authors Podcast, available at http://thedeadauthorspodcast.libsyn.com/ and on iTunes.
For a discussion with a contemporary master of dialogue, read Elizabeth Gaffney’s Paris Review interview of Lorrie Moore, at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/510/the-art-of-fiction-no-167-lorrie-moore
For information about formatting dialogue in fiction, take a look at http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/fiction/2009/04/dialogue-in-fiction.html