Deepening Character and Advancing the Plot
Dialogue is essential for character development and for advancing the plot. Most people speak and all people communicate. So to bring your characters to life and make them seem convincing, they need to act and speak in a convincing way. Further, dialogue is an excellent way of providing the reader with important background information.
For example, rather than simply telling the reader that a character had a bad day at work, you could write a scene in which we hear that character talking to a friend (or bar-tender, or their therapist!) about what a bad day they've had. That way we get a fuller sense of the world the character inhabits, the people they associate with, and how they interact with others.
We learn a lot about a character from the way they speak. For a good example check out the opening conversation between Mr and Mrs Bennet in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. And take a look at how Rosanne Hawke perfectly illustrates a clash of cultures in this passage of dialogue from her short story The Wedding:
‘My name’s Blue.’ He holds out his hand. ‘I’m visiting the Karakorum with a friend from the Forestry Department.’ The other smiles and shakes it, then keeps holding it.
‘My name is Sharif Mohammed,’ he says with a faint roll on the ‘r’.
‘Right ho,’ Blue says with a worried glance around as he tries to extricate his hand.
Sharif brings his other hand over the top of Blue’s. ‘What means Blue?’ he asks in friendly conversation.
‘Just a nickname, mate.’ With relief Blue gets his hand back and feels more like explaining. ‘My hair’s a touch red, you see.’ He points to it. ‘Where I come from that gets you the name Blue. Yours a nickname too?’ He laughs. ‘What sort of name is Shar-reef?’ He doesn’t manage to roll the ‘r’.
Sharif’s smile is held in place by centuries of politeness. ‘I am named after our prophet, may peace be upon him. And Sharif means noble. It has been in our family for generations.’
Good writers need to develop an ear for conversation, by listening to the way real people speak. When it comes to writing dialogue, however,the words need to have the flavour of real conversation, but should be a condensed or idealised way of speaking (you can't afford to include every 'Um' and 'Er' and 'Like, you know?').
You can learn a great deal from experienced writers about how to write effective dialogue - the best place to start is by picking up a well written novel and turning to a passage of dialogue to see how it's handled. Lastly, be sure to check out the two resources included in this section. They provide a useful overview of the basic dos and don'ts of writing dialogue.