I’m currently reading The Help and enjoying Kathryn Stockett’s use of dialogue to paint a picture of her characters. Some of Stockett’s characters have a dialect and use slang and incorrect grammar; if she didn’t write them this way, they wouldn’t be authentic. So how can writers get inside their characters’ heads to make them realistic? One way is to use your ears. Listen to how people talk and the way they interact with each other. Studying people is a fascinating business.
A showcase example of effective dialogue is Ernest Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants. Told primarily in dialogue format, it’s absolutely brilliant and is my favorite Hemingway piece. Within these pages, a conversation takes place between a man and a woman; a clear conflict is at the heart of the conversation, though Hemingway very cleverly insinuates the crux of the problem without coming right out and telling readers. This omission of details causes readers to have to read between the lines and guess at the conundrum that lies between the two main characters. But it’s worth it—reading it is like eavesdropping on a conversation and trying to decipher its intimate codes (and as someone who loves to study people and get character ideas, it’s pure delight!)
Admittedly, I’ve used conversations and dialogue that I’ve overheard, or perhaps even were related to me by someone else in my own writing. It’s that desire to take reality and turn it into fiction that intrigues me and makes me want to create memorable fictional characters (kind of like reality television, but only more genuine). It isn’t easy. But the ability to write strong dialogue makes those characters believable.
If you haven’t read Hemingway’s short story, treat yourself to tremendous dialogue and crafty writing that makes you wonder and ponder this scene. There’s a reason he’s legendary.