Colorado gets 300 days of sunshine each year, and people from all over the world come to ski here, and regardless an apres ski drink out on a patio makes every ski day just that little bit better. This is all to say that your actual skiing ability doesn’t affect your enjoyment. But... being a better skier does make the mountain more fun.
Writing is no different. There are so many elements to writing... but, really, you don’t need to master them all. But when you do, you cross the line from good writer to great writer. Can you write a book without mastering dialogue? Of course! Many, many writers have done it. But can you demonstrate a real understanding of your craft if you don’t master dialogue? Not really.
It’s a rather obvious point to state that HOW a character speaks informs the reader about WHO the character is. But can you build and create any character you want because you have the grammatical tools to do so? Take a look at the four lines of dialogue below. They’re all saying the same thing, but each makes the point with different grammatical structures.
A - “I want the same thing.”
B - “I too want that.” C - “Oh my gosh! Same!”
D - “My desires and your desires align perfectly.”
These examples above may seem obvious to you. Switch the way a character says something to make that character distinct – duh! But that distinct characteristic can be crafted by the deliberate following or breaking of grammar rules. Making the deliberate choice to craft a sentence a certain way separates the good from the great writers.
To create stronger dialogue, create nuances and subtext, write the characters’ reactions that indicate how they feel, and use grammatical structures to do it. This requires, first and foremost, a full understanding of your characters. Once you understand them, it’s a matter of using grammar to craft the key words, phrases or structures that indicate the deeper nuances of their character. Below is a quick scene description and three possible opening lines. As you read, notice how the structure of each line of dialogue indicates something subtly but importantly different.
Scene: Alarm goes off. A couple wakes up in the early morning dark. Both man and woman sit up and put their feet on the floor.
A - Man: “I’m sorry I can’t go with you today.”
B - Man: “Are you sure you’re okay going alone?”
C - Man: “You’re fine going without me, right?”
Line A indicates a sorrow. The man is apologizing for an inability. There are hints of guilt. This line hints that he can’t go because there is some other, more important, event pulling him away.
Line B indicates a worry. The man is anxious the woman is going alone. There are hints that he wants to go, but that the woman has said no. Unlike Line A, he has the time and the desire to go, but is prevented.
Line C indicates nonchalance. In this line, the man doesn’t really seem to care. His line is more of an excuse for himself than a real line of caring. Unlike the other lines, the man likely can go, likely should go, but the subtext here is that he doesn’t want to go.
This is an opening line, and we readers don’t really know the full story – where is the woman going? Why might the man need to go with her? What might be pulling/keeping the man from going too? As the author crafting the story, you’ll know all these answers. But don’t feel the need to cram all the information in. And, more than anything, do NOT have the characters speak their plans in dialogue. It’s okay to leave the readers with a bit of mystery (for a prime example of this, check out Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”).
Because you know your characters, you can craft dialogue that very subtly – but very importantly and very expertly – indicates who they are. This then trickles down into other elements of the narrative (like not having to explain why they’re saying what they’re saying) and the your overall writing grows stronger.
When you write dialogue, you must invert the reading process. Don’t use dialogue to deliver the information about your characters. Instead, consider how that information affects the characters’ psychology, how they would feel and how they would act, and have them speak to indicate (or even hide) their feelings. In it all, HOW they speak matters more than WHAT they say.