Dialogue can be one of the key structural components to a story, and there’s a lot of vague recommendations and misinformation regarding it. This is one of my writing strengths, and I’ve given it a lot of thought while helping other other writers use it effectively.
There are a fair number of writers and writing instructors who insist dialogue has only two functions, moving the plot forward or developing the character. I very strongly argue that this is an oversimplification, and misses several ways dialogue can serve a story. In addition to these, well-written dialogue can ramp up or defuse tension, develop the world, contribute to description, and break up long narrative passages.
It’s hard to invest in characters and a conflict or argument they’re having, if you don’t see how it starts or how it is perpetuated through the characters’ actions and speech. How a character speaks tells a lot about how they’re feeling about a situation or another character. Rather than telling the reader that a character is awkward, nervous, or confident, you can show it with their word choices and the tags that support their speech. It’s much more satisfying and visceral.
What your characters say to themselves and others tells the reader about the world, about the culture, and about what they are seeing. The language you choose to use, can tell the reader that the atmosphere is casual or formal.
There is no holy grail formula for determining the perfect amount of dialogue for all stories. There are stories that work perfectly fine with no dialogue, though this is much less likely to work in a novel. There are excellent stories and chapters that are almost entirely dialogue. The key is to make sure that the dialogue, or lack thereof, fits the story.
If what you’ve used provides the story with additional depth, it’s what you need. If it feels extraneous or leads the story or reader off on undesirable tangents, it needs to be cut or revised.
Like any writing tool, dialogue needs to fall into the correct place in the story. Misplaced dialogue is jarring, pulling your reader out of the story. The content of the dialogue needs to be reasonable, and follow the logic of your characters. This is something many writers have trouble with. They focus so much on using dialogue to push the plot that they throw in conversations that would never happen where or when they do. Or they force the dialogue along a path that doesn’t make sense. While it’s true real conversations don’t always logically go from point A, to point B, to point C, there needs to be some connection, some reason if your character is going to switch from talking about the weather to screaming about past injustices. If there’s no connection, it feels artificial, and it needs to go. If the conversation needs to get to a certain point, make sure the writing beforehand, or the internal narration during, lead us there logically.
The language used in your dialogue can tell the reader a lot about the characters and the setting. Word choices tell us if the characters are comfortable with each other, if they see eye-to-eye, or if they’re nervous. They show us that the setting is formal or informal through the use of social cues and structure. The words used by a character can tell the reader about their upbringing or past. Do they say soda or pop? Fireflies or lightning bugs. Some of these are subtle, but all feed into the construction of your character.
Some instructors loathe contractions and insist they don’t belong in dialogue. They are mistaken. If the situation is formal, then it’s true your character may not use them. If the character is not a native speaker of the language, they may not use contractions either. But a native speaker not using contractions when chatting at home or on the phone with their best friend feels stilted and fake.
I recommend caution when using vernacular, or phonetic representation of a dialect or accent. Mark Twain was a master of this, and most of the rest of us just aren’t. I’ve read a fantasy series where some characters speak with a Scottish brogue. Despite my familiarity with it, I have to speak the dialogue out loud in order to understand some of what they’re saying. This pulls me out of the story. Patois is perfectly understandable to my ear, but nearly impossible for me to read. It’s not that this tool is unusable, it just needs to be used cautiously. One of the reasons Twain was so good at it, was that he dialed the vernacular back, giving just enough to provide the world setting flavor without losing the reader.
One of the best ways to determine for yourself if your dialogue is working, is to read it out loud. Does it sound like a real person? Does it sound like something the character would say, or does it sound like another character? Read the entire story out loud. If the dialogue feels like it’s slowing the story or doesn’t flow, then it’s too long or misplaced. If it feels natural and moves the story or its architecture (characters, world or plot), then it’s perfect.
Like character development, dialogue will add word count and page length. If additional length is a problem, you can truncate or summarize parts of longer conversations, particularly the parts that don’t significantly add to the story.