I started out by writing stage plays before I wrote novels and short stories. With stage plays, the only tool you really have is dialogue. While you can specify how something is said, or with what gesture, actors won’t thank you for it because they see it as their job to find that in the character for themselves. Equally you can’t tie the Director’s hand with too much stage direction. The amount of scenery and clever gimmicks you can write into the script is severely limited by the production budget and state of theatre technology.
So that returns you to the dialogue and pretty much the dialogue alone. It has to establish not only the characters of course, but the plot of the play, the themes and motifs, drive the conflict. In fact it has to tell every element of the story. Now in novels we are spared that, because we can have description to do much of this work. But drawing on the lessons of playwriting’s all-dialogue discipline, there are thing to bear in mind to help writing good quality dialogue in prose.
Unless you are writing something experimental or hallucinatory, dialogue in novels has to read authentically. Even if you are writing a Fantasy story, where you can describe wonderful unearthly descriptions of landscapes or monsters, the dialogue still has to be recognisably human. Speech is after all how we humans communicate with one another. The easiest crime to spot in dialogue is when characters talk as if they weren’t human. This may be down to the author trying to wedge a message, or something to advance the plot, into the words of a character. This nearly always comes off as clunky and flat. It can sound like a robot talking. Think about James Bond villains who always pause in killing the captured Bond in order to spout off about their brilliant plan for world domination. Does it ever do them any good?
Rather than spell it out, aim to suggest it. Playwriting taught me that what is not said by the character is often as important, if not more important than what they do say. Economy is always best. Remember, you are aiming for a natural sounding speech. Listen to how people speak in real life. Instead of a character returning to his desk and telling his colleague “The boss says I have to have that report on his desk in an hour’s time or I’ll lose my job”, the author can have him moving over to the wall clock and moving the hands forward by an hour and a half and intoning to his colleague “…When I’m toast”. It’s more intriguing, allows for more tension if you describe the colleague’s expression of bemusement at the action and still conveys the information for the plot.
The dialogue a character speaks also allows you to establish their ‘voice’. How educated are they, do they have a good vocabulary or not? Can they master words or do words master them, as they mangle language and use the wrong word, which can be a good source of comedy. Is their speech prolix because they like to use words, but it hides a lack of precision in their thinking and ability to structure their thoughts? Do they always have lots of innuendo when they’re speaking with members of the opposite sex? Do they leave their sentences unfinished, inviting others to finish them for them, in which case they may jump down their throats for doing so and getting it wrong? Do they not finish their sentences because others always shout them down or cut across them? Who has the power in any exchange of dialogue is always something to think about. And it’s not static, if one character begins the exchange on the front foot, but the other drops in a piece of information that stops them up short, then the second character may then take the upper hand. This is how you can modulate the conflict.
Since conflict is such a driver of narrative story, you have to consider both sides of a relationship in any conflict. It would be boring if the same character always had the upper hand in an exchange, so bearing that in mind, you can plot the rises and falls of each character within dialogue. Knowledge and information are nearly always power, so when your character decides to drop in their piece of knowledge is key and often the pivotal moment of any scene. Do you accompany such a key revelation line of dialogue with a description of the recipient’s reaction? Do you underline its significance by describing an accompanying gesture by the revealer of the fact?
This raises another question about how much ‘he said/she said’ and ’he said haughtily’ an author puts into their dialogue. I think it depends on how much of a block of dialogue you are talking about. I think if it’s an exchange of a couple of lines of speech, then you can put in adverbs. But if it’s a prolonged exchange, you want it to flow back and forth between the characters, so as little embellishment outside the speech marks is what I’d advise. And if you distinguish the voices of your characters well enough, I don’t believe you ever need he said/she said. They certainly get jarring if they appear too often. Trust to the voices of your character informing the reader who is speaking. If you have a scene with four or more speakers, then there probably is no way around the Smith said, Wilson said because it would get too confusing otherwise.
Thus the watchword when writing dialogue is does it sound natural rather than forced? Read it out aloud as an indication of how it sounds to your ear. I find doing this invaluable. Of course to sound natural, there are even more advanced things you can do when writing dialogue; sentences that aren’t finished, that trail off or are cut across by the other speaker. Or you could have the person answering reacting to the first thing that the other said, but not hearing the second part of what they went on to say. Watch a discussion/argument between other people and you’ll see this happens all the time. Sometimes our mouths can’t work fast enough for all the ideas pinballing around in our heads, particularly when in an argument and we end up with sentences that trail off as we loose the train of thought. But I would only recommend these approaches if you’re writing something that’s playing with conventional narrative structure in the first place.
So there you have it. My new novel “Time After Time” began life as a stage play, so it was all dialogue. When i adapted it for a novel, I barely touched the dialogue that had served for the characters, their voices and their verbal exchanges. But I wrote over double the length in description, which took the book on to a whole new level from the original stage play. And I don’t think I ever had a single he said/she said exchange!