Remember when you were a child and you played with stuffed animals, army men, or Barbie dolls? There was one thing you always did with these toys – you made them talk to each other. You had them chat it up or even argue with each other. You did this spontaneously, mocking whatever conversation you’d most recently heard. This a universal childhood experience.
Why do most beginning writers struggle to write functioning dialogue?

There are a couple of things that can cause dialogue to fall down. One is stilted dialogue. This dialogue sounds like lines were written for a character to deliver. Such dialogue is easily identified when everything a character says is in a full sentence and every detail that might be in the character’s head – their motivations and emotions are all spelled out.

Here’s an example:
“Hello, Mr. Henderson, I am Officer Jackson of the Danville Police Department. I need to ask you a few questions, if I may?”
“I don’t really want to be bothered with questions right now, I have just suffered a personal tragedy, but I suppose I’ll put up with a few questions as long as it doesn’t take too long.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate it. It makes my job a lot easier when folks simply allow me to take their statements. Do you remember where you were earlier this evening before you headed home?”
“Yes I do. My wife and I were at dinner. She ordered chicken and I ordered fish. The service was slow, but we go to Frank and Mary’s all the time, so we’re used to it.”

There are several actions you can take to correct dialogue like this: read the dialogue aloud, write more drafts using your delete key liberally, listen to conversations that are happening around you and become a student of how people speak to each other. Eavesdrop at Starbucks. Jot down bits of dialogue that you hear. This is a lot of fun and will build your skill. Your reader will best learn what your character is thinking through good dialogue, not by having the character (you) tell them.

Here’s how this dialogue might start to look after you’ve taken a few of these steps:
“Mr. Henderson, I’m sorry sir, I just need to ask a few questions.”
The old man looked at the small steel name bar on the cop’s chest. C. Jackson. “OK.”
“Do you remember where you were earlier this evening before you headed home?”
“Dinner. At Frank and Mary’s. It’s catfish night.”

[Continued in Fixing Dialogue – Part 2]