I have Opinions about dialogue, but at the end of the day my strongest is this: keep it short. Not the scene, mind you–that can run on as long as you like–but the actual lines, from the actual characters, should be kept tight and few in number.
Most day-to-day conversation goes something like this:
Al: Gimme the keys.
Betty: Lost ’em.
Al: Oh for–fine, we’ll take my car.
Characters–even chatty characters–should never go beyond three lines or so of dialogue before they get cut off or pause for breath. Additionally, when a character delivers a line, they should stop, other characters should break in, and so on. Conversation is a team effort.
Even when characters are delivering story-critical information, you should keep it short and sweet–because hey, it’s CRUCIAL! My favorite example of crucial information being boiled down to a few key notes is in The Princess Bride, when Wesley’s been dead (sorry, spoilers!) and Inigo is trying to get him up to speed:
“Let me explain: no, there is too much. Let me sum up: Buttercup is marry Humperdinck in little less than half an hour. So all we have to do is get in, break up the wedding, steal the princess, and make our escape–after I kill count Rugen.”
BOOM–short, sweet, and it tells us everything we need to know.
Now: this isn’t to say that your conversations can’t run on. But when characters are running on, ask yourself: is this necessary? Would this information be better delivered as narrative or interior monologue? What are the key points, and what’s the most economical way to express them?
At this point, you might be wondering: but why? Why is it so important that my dialogue stay short? Isn’t there beauty in a well-delivered, well-worded speech?
Of course there is. However, in addition to sounding more authentic, shorter lines of dialogue have something else going for them: they’re powerful. When you limit yourself to a line or two, you need to pack those lines with everything you’ve got. Given enough page time, almost any writer can produce a feeling, create an effect, or convey information. But the very best writers choose their words with care, and can pack those same feelings, effects, and facts into just two or three sharp lines. Think of it as distillation: you’re filtering out what we don’t need, and leaving us with something pure and potent.
And when you DO include a rousing speech, it’ll stand out all the more.
Shannon Roberts has been editing fiction and providing authorial support for ten years. She’s also taken a few courses in Social Media Marketing, and would love to hear from you! You can find her on Twitter (@RedPenGal) or LinkedIn.