In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Good dialogue is a delight to read. Bad dialogue is deadly. The skill necessary to write good dialogue comes from years of practice. The art comes from a creative imagination which is working hard and having fun.
What makes dialogue good or bad in a story? It’s difficult sometimes to designate why a scene of dialogue is working beautifully at one part in a novel and then not working at all at another part.
But it’s always pretty clear early on when the dialogue is going to be a delight… or if it’s deadly.
What does good dialogue do?
First, good dialogue should sound realistic. There should never be a point where you’re questioning if the character would say that or why the character is saying it. Good dialogue should define your character and come from a place of authenticity, never dishonesty.
You shouldn’t be shoving words into your character’s mouth because you want them to say something, whether it’s for exposition purpose or trying to further the plot along. But even more so, what’s coming out of your characters’ mouths should sound natural.
Anything less than realistic will break the spell for your reader.
This is why reading your dialogue out loud is key. It can feel realistic when you’re typing the words on the screen, but not necessarily realistic when you actually say the words out loud.
Good dialogue should also open up the world to your story, give a sense of time and place, showcase personality and depth. There’s little more pleasing when reading a novel than to read great dialogue. You get a sense that the author knows what he or she is doing. That he or she has an understanding of the characters that goes beyond simply what they’re doing in terms of the plot.
By the end of a great scene of dialogue, something new should be learned, sure, but you should also have a better sense as to who the characters are and what they want.
What does bad dialogue do?
Stephen King is right: bad dialogue is really, really deadly. For me, even just one scene of bad dialogue in a novel that feels forced, doesn’t ring true, is enough to make me put the book down and pick up another. Even if the concept is solid, and even if the characters are well-developed, if the dialogue sounds off, I probably won’t continue reading.
There are all kinds of examples of bad dialogue. The most obvious is dialogue that sounds stiff, that doesn’t sound like anything a person would say but instead feels like exposition the author has shoved into the character’s mouth so the reader can receive a piece of information.
When a character says something nobody in the universe would ever say, you’re in trouble.
Sometimes it’s a matter of just trusting the reader, that he or she will understand the situation and new piece of information. Treat your readers as smart, not stupid, and the dialogue will often be improved in some regard.
Bad dialogue is also a matter of rhythm, too. Sometimes the voices are coming through okay, but the way the scene is written doesn’t allow for the dialogue to truly pop. A good line of dialogue by one character is followed by another good line of dialogue by a different character, but the pacing doesn’t make sense. It’s too fast, or way, way too slow.
This is where the practice part comes in.
It’s hard to teach anyone how to write good dialogue. You can show examples from published novels, but sometimes short examples still aren’t enough, because you don’t have an understanding of everything that came before.
Ultimately you’ll need to practice, practice, practice in order to write dialogue that feels authentic, that truly soars for the reader.
And when it comes to dialogue, revision is definitely your friend. I can’t tell you many times I’ve revised scenes of dialogue in my recent novels, especially scenes that include three or more characters. Those are the hardest! When you have four, five, maybe six characters in a scene talking to each other, good luck.
It’s so difficult it often takes me ten drafts or more to get the rhythm of the scene and all the characters’ voices just right.
But even if your scene is merely two people talking to each other, you’re going to need to practice and revise more than you ever imagined, unless you’re one of the really, really lucky ones who gets it right after the first or second pass. Dialogue comes naturally for some writers, and not so naturally for others. The key is to embrace any weaknesses you might have in dialogue writing and try to improve, no matter how long it takes.
The dialogue in my early books is pretty cringe-worthy, but I’ve definitely improved over the years. You’ll get better, too. Just keep trying, keep practicing, keep revising.