What the character says reveals more than pages of description. She reveals herself through her words; her thoughts, feelings and influence.
When she says “Politicians! They should be cut into pieces and fed to the lions” you know her better than if you had just written ‘She had extreme opinions on politicians.’
When writing dialogue, challenge yourself to let your characters speak for themselves, in any way they must.
Find ways to free yourself up. Write their words on paper using different pens for different characters – just as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used to do – the elegant fountain pen for one character, the chewed Bic for another.
After you’ve given your characters a chance to empty themselves, cut and trim, combine, or pick a line or two that says it all. Often what people really mean is not what they say. Look for that tension. And remember, what people don’t say is often far more powerful than what they do say.
A good place to begin is with the most obvious dialogue. It doesn’t need to be subtle. Write on the nose.
Let your characters go. Then just sit back and watch. It isn’t just what they say. It is also what they do while they talk.
Next, work out what they are hiding. Characters will always hide their true meaning behind their words. Subtext is important.
Learn from the masters. Watch a politician evading questions. Politicians can never be seen to be losing. Someone else is always to blame. They believe themselves to be the masters of deception. As if!
Conversations must hide instead of explain. Hide when you can reveal. Lie when you can tell the truth.
Allow your characters to misunderstand, to talk at cross purposes, to interrupt, to hesitate.
Direct the dialogue off stage. Call for the waiter to pay a bill, call to the bartender to order another beer. Allow the action to interrupt the flow.
Have your characters answer questions with questions. Like “Did you steal the picture?” with “What do you take me for?”
Allow your characters to talk to themselves. “What am I doing here?”
Just a few ideas to help you make your dialogue endlessly fascinating.
Poor dialogue happens when the writer isn’t sensitive to the way his character talks. Poor dialogue is when characters overact and the dialogue is explicit. Poor dialogue is when it is used to drag the story along.
If the dialogue does not develop the plot or show the characters’ personality or ambitions, then leave it out. Sometimes silence works best.
What your character thinks is shown in everything she says. She may be proving or disproving some particular point or enunciating some universal proposition. All these comments reveal her personality. This also reveals her moral purpose. There are things she wants to talk about or things she wishes to avoid.
Don’t confuse the reader by having your character talk about something of absolutely no relevance to the story. Everything said must be relevant, revealing character’s motivation, experience and attitude.
Why have characters waste interaction just to cover, say, travel arrangements? In general, use dialogue to heighten suspense and tension, not to tell us what we already know.