In creative writing dialogue should aim to make characters original and move the plot along. Because successful fiction mimics real life, well-written dialogue sounds natural, as though the reader is eaves dropping on an actual conversation.
Works by some authors rely on dialogue less than others. But whether you use it sparingly or rely on it to move your story forward, dialogue that is realistic and believable has five important uses:
Imagine a husband and wife driving down the road. The husband (driver) says, “Look at that. We’re in the ditch. Now what are we going to do?” You can guess what’s happened in the story, but the man’s words reveal nothing about his personality.
Now consider this passage from the novel, Daughter of the Cimarron. Harold, the driver is speaking: “Lookit that,” he muttered. “Clear in the ditch and stuck besides. How am I going to get this flivver back on the road?” Harold’s tone, choice of words and his question reveal his attitude, cultural background and the frustration he’s feeling at the moment. In fact, from that opening scene, Harold’s words alone tell us nearly everything we need to know to appreciate the character.
When characters in a story are well-defined, their spoken words will bring the person to life.
In L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy early on states, “I’m anxious to get back to my Aunt and Uncle, for I am sure they will worry about me. Can you help me find my way?”
Thus is Dorothy’s motivation revealed. From this point on, the story question is established: Will Dorothy make it home? Everything she does and says from here on in the story relates back to her statement.
Each character who joins Dorothy has a reason for seeking the Wizard, and says so, just as Dorothy says, “Come along, Toto . . . we will go to the Emerald City and ask the great Oz how to get back to Kansas again.”
Backstory plays a key role in fiction, but readers usually cringe at info dump. How can you write a scene that reveals important information about what’s gone before without boring your reader?
By revealing that information through dialogue.
At the same time you’re revealing your character’s motivation and personality, you can be informing the reader about what’s happened in the past, or hint at what to expect in the future.
Here’s a dialogue exchange that reveals very little information, yet creates suspense in the mind of the reader:
The ringing phone woke Tom up. “Hello,” he mumbled into the receiver. “This is Officer Smith from the Salem Police Department. I’m calling for Tom Watkins.” “This is Tom Watkins.” “Mr. Watkins, do you have a son named David?” “Yes—I do!” “Okay, thank you.” (Click.)
That short exchange will leave the reader in suspense, wondering the same thing as poor Tom: Is my son okay?
In fact, in the example above, the exchange between Tom Watkins and Officer Smith likely created a conflict between the two characters. Tom is probably wondering what’s wrong with Officer Smith, calling with a question like that, then hanging up!
In successful fiction, creative writing dialogue mimics real life. Realistic exchanges between two or more characters must be more than “just the fact, ma’am.” Using dialogue to reveal personality, motivation, information, suspense and conflict will turn a bland story into a real page turner.