Writing teachers often tell the story of an 8-year-old who walked into the library and asked the librarian for “more books with those funny marks inside.” Upon questioning the child, the librarian determined that he was talking about quotation marks, and that he wanted books with lots of dialogue.
Indeed, dialogue (defined as conversation between two or more people in a book or a play) interests most readers. Some very strongly prefer books heavy with dialogue. But even those readers who might prefer narrative summary or description still don’t crave books without dialogue. In short, although they might be crazy about narrative, they will also, subconsciously, want relief from unending narrative.
Dialogue is fascinating to readers because, if done well, it reveals character, it reveals conflict, it shows the reader what is happening — and it seems more “real life” and faster than narrative.
Readers aren’t the only people who love dialogue. Some writers so enjoy writing dialogue (usually witty) that they initially write pages and pages of the stuff. But the main purpose of scene (almost all scenes contain dialogue) is to reveal conflict, reveal character, and move the plot forward. Its primary purpose is not to feature dialogue. Instead of a scene being an excuse to write dialogue, it should be dialogue which serves the purpose of the scene.
Although dialogue may seem “real life,” it is not so. As Sol Stein points out in Stein on Writing, realistic dialogue is contained in court transcriptions. And nobody craves reading court transcriptions. Here’s how Stein put it:
“Dialogue, contrary to popular view, is not a recording of actual speech; it is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes.”
Good dialogue gives the impression of natural speech, but is not a verbatim rendition of natural speech. Usually the uh’s the you know’s, the see’s and other such verbal crutches are left out: or are put in, but are only representative. It would be painful to read dialogue that actually reproduces speech. So dialogue gives the impression of naturalness, but the writer usually works very hard to make the dialogue seem natural when, in fact, it is more pertinent, more efficient, and more meaningful than most natural dialogue.
When writing dialogue, writers must consider how the lines will look on a page. A full page of nothing but one-liners is difficult for readers to assimilate: they loose track of who’s speaking. But a full page in which one character’s dialogue occupies the entire page, or even half of the page, is also difficult for readers to relate to. Long paragraphs of dialogue cease feeling like dialogue to the reader: they start to feel like narrative.
Of course, just as uninterrupted dialogue is difficult to read, so is uninterrupted narrative: the reader wants something to happen live — on the page, in real time. With people! People speaking words!
When well-written, those words surrounded by “funny marks” carry a lot of weight in creating character, revealing plot, and moving the action forward.
Barbara Gregorich has more to say about dialogue in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.