The art of great dialogue is a skill that—when authors master it—holds the key to changing a mediocre story into a great one. Dialogue is what draws readers into the moment, and what gives that sensation of time and place, allowing us to "hear" what the characters are saying as if we are there with them.
Just as good dialogue is an essential ingredient to a good story, bad dialogue can ruin an otherwise great narrative. The difference between good and bad dialogue is often a matter of one or two words, and those words are typically modifiers. Yes, most authors have it—that fatal attraction to the adverb when writing dialogue:
"But, in art, how do you create without descriptors," she said despairingly.
"Art tends to overcomplicate itself," he replied, with a knowing smile.
The above examples show one of the most common mistakes writers make. Adverbs tend to show hesitation, self-doubt, even fear that what you are writing needs validation. The overuse of adverbs and adjectives, particularly within the structure of dialogue, is the mark of a timid author who believes that what his characters say isn't revealing enough for effective characterization.
When dialogue is right, we know. When it's wrong we also know—it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument.
Stephen King, one of the most prolific novelists of our time by the sheer quantity of successful books he has written, points out that the first step to creating good dialogue is to listen to others talk. In his book, On Writing, King begins his foray about bad writers and equally bad dialogue with this simple advice:
The job [of writing good dialogue] boils down to two things—paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.
Readers subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) pick up on disingenuous conversation between characters. It's the reality in which fiction is based, and one that is necessary to hold together a good story. King points out that often, what people say reveals more about them than they realize. The rule is: the more authentic your character seems, the more your reader will connect with him or her. The same goes for dialogue; when what the character says is authentic, the adverbs that decorate "he said" or "she said" not only become unnecessary—they become distracting. Which takes the greater talent: describing to the reader how something is said, or guiding the reader to fill in that subtext correctly on his or her own?
Then, there is always the cardinal rule of writing great fiction, which states that a writer should never say what he or she can show. If your character is a poorly educated one, the words he says can let your reader know:
"Them ain't got no sign on the door," he said.
A writer might be tempted to follow those words with "he said dumbly" or "he drawled", but what is the point? This is when dialogue is honest and revealing at once, and stands on its own to provide enough characterization without the addition of modifiers.
If the words of your character can't convey the message you want, before resorting to the adjective or adverb, let their actions tell the rest of the story.
"You can do what you want," she said, as the frayed thread on her shirt suddenly became more interesting than his response.
We know from this excerpt that the woman is cutting the man off, that the conversation is over—the reader's imagination is then led to supply the subtext. We don't need a "she said nonchalantly" or a "she said coolly." The authentic words followed by revealing action say all that needs to be said.
Despite the do's and don'ts mentioned above, some writers are simply born with a natural ability to create believable, engaging dialogue. Although many readers can't pinpoint exactly what it is that they like about a certain author, good dialogue is usually what draws them into a story and keeps them there. The authors who tend to write great dialogue are not usually the loner type—they like to have conversations with people and like to observe the way people speak, to whom they speak, and what they say.
Stephen King points to a great example of H.P. Lovecraft, a writer who is hailed as a master storyteller but has never been known for his great dialogue. King credits this unfortunate truth with Lovecraft's personal life, stating that although Lovecraft was able to communicate with acquaintances via correspondence, he did not like conversation and spent much of his life as a recluse.
Lovecraft's example proves that a writer is more or less limited to his ability in the craft of writing. Some things can be taught, while others can only be accepted. Lovecraft's lack of believable dialogue might have been what kept him from having a wider audience, but his writing still has an almost cult following. Lovecraft accepted his limitations and focused on poetically dense descriptions and startling plot twists rather than authentic characterization.
If you want to create better dialogue, and don't mind leaving your house, your best bet would be to get out in public, attend a party, and find every way possible to listen to others speak, observe how others respond, and memorize the brutally honest details. This simple exercise could do wonders for your ability to write effective dialogue.