In my Why Good Writing Matters series, I covered dialogue as a whole. Now I'd like to go more in-depth with dialogue and give suggestions for sprucing it up and making it natural and easy to follow. Just as variation in prose shapes good writing, so does variation in characters' speech. Sentence length and style, topics of conversation, and vocabulary/language are the main areas where dialogue can be enhanced. That dialogue can then be used to accent the surrounding prose.
Dialogue as Prose
One of the great things about dialogue is that it can be used for manipulating the reader and building plot. For instance, if you have a scene where you are unraveling delicate information, incorporating backstory, introducing new conflicts, or a combination of these, one option is to explain the actions of the events through characters' conversations. Take this scene from Catching Fire (Book 2 of The Hunger Games trilogy):
She [Madge] saw my reflection behind her and smiled. "Look at you. Like you came right off the streets of the Capitol."
I [Katniss] stepped in closer. My fingers touched the mockingjay. "Even my pin now. Mockingjays are all the rage in the Capitol, thanks to you. Are you sure you don't want it back?" I asked.
"Don't be silly, it was a gift," said Madge. She tied back her hair in a festive gold ribbon.
"Where did you get it, anyway?" I asked.
"It was my aunt's," she said. "But I think it's been in the family a long time."
"It's a funny choice, a mockingjay," I said. "I mean, because of what happened in the rebellion. With the jabberyjays backfiring on the Capitol and all."
Notice all of the context surrounding this short stretch of dialogue. There is mention of a place called the Capitol, and it is clear by Madge's comment that Katniss looks out of place. By the next few sentences, one can ascertain the Capitol is a place of influence. A small amount of backstory regarding the pin is then mentioned, and the subsequent dialogue serves as an introduction for more history on the symbol and the place called the Capitol. It is clear from their conversation the symbol has become somewhat taboo and holds a dark past directly tied to the Capitol. All of this information is revealed to the reader through simple conversation, and the style allows the author to control how much of the information the reader absorbs in this scene.
Although this wasn't true for the above excerpt, sentences in dialogue don't always have to be completed and can actually be very useful in building suspense and tension. Take this short exchange from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5 of the Harry Potter series):
"Don't call them that!" Hermione said furiously, but Umbridge did not appear to have heard her. Still pointing her shaking want at Magorian, she continued, "Law Fifteen B states clearly that 'Any attack by a magical creature who is deemed to have near-human intelligence, and therefore considered responsible of its actions—'"
"'Near-human intelligence'?" repeated Magorian, as Bane and several other roared with rather and pawed the ground. "We consider that a great insult, human! Our intelligence, thankfully, far outstrips your own—"
"What are you doing in our forest?" bellowed the hard-faced gray centaur whom Harry and Hermione had seen on their last trip into the forest. "Why are you here?"
Each time a character speaking is cut off, tension and anger emits from the other characters, shown through the intense remarks and accompanying body language. The suspense then builds, as inevitable confrontation approaches.
Reasons one might choose this method of prose:
1. This is a great way to control which parts of the plot unfold and what information is relayed to the reader.
2. This method can be used to switch from one character's thoughts to another (reserved mainly for limited omniscient narrative). For example, if Character A is the main focus of a story, a conversation with Character B can then act as a bridge into Character B's thoughts and point of view.
3. Dialogue can simply be used as an alternative kind of prose to keep the reader's interest.
Vocabulary and Accents
Vocabulary and accents can clue readers into a number of attributes about a character, including educational background, origin, and preferences in friends. However, it can also be used to purposely lead the reader astray. At some point in our lives, most of us make our own choices about accents, whether consciously or subconsciously. And although it's true that cultures and subcultures have a great influence on our speech, so does peer pressure.
During college, I had a professor who taught linguistics. In his first lecture, there was nothing out of the ordinary about him or his lesson; he taught us the basics of how language worked and spoke with the same accent as everyone else. At the end of his first class, he turned and informed us that the whole lesson had been an experiment. When he spoke next, his accent was no longer the one we'd heard all throughout the lesson; it was unmistakably West Virginian, something none of us were accustomed to. The reaction was immediate. Several students giggled quietly. Others started whispering to their friends. After several moments of the commotion, the professor raised his hand to signal silence to the class and resumed speaking with a Midwestern accent, the one he'd been using.
He informed us that he could tell many of us weren't used to second accent. He went on to confess that accent he had been using to teach us during the whole lesson was in fact not his own, that he actually spoke with a West Virginian accent. However, like our class, his peers in school often laughed and him and judged him. It was at that point he chose to teach himself how to speak with a Midwestern accent so that he would be viewed as normal.
Just as with my professor, characters sometimes choose the way in which they speak. Incorporating dialects in writing can provide a richness that no other method will. However, the dialect should be consistent and not overdone; you'll know you've done a good job if others can easily follow the text and understand what the character is saying without having to pause to figure out articulation. A great example of a well-written accent is Hagrid's in the Harry Potter series.
Incorporating Body Language
Body language is also a topic mentioned in my previous article on dialogue, but it's important enough to repeat. One sure sign of amateur dialogue is the occurrence of talking heads. This term can be applied when characters engage in conversation without having accompanying body language or action to propel the plot. Often when talking heads emerge in a book, it's unclear who is speaking. You don't need to have a tag on every line of dialogue, but they are necessary when clarifying identity or when there is an abundance of action. Even when few tags are needed, body language should take the place of adjectives and adverbs.
Dialogue is difficult to master, even for the best of writers. It's a fine balance between exposing plot while remaining concise. Use a combination of all the aforementioned methods to achieve the most efficient and natural dialogue. Also, keep dialogue short and appropriate for the character/scene, and avoid stating the obvious. Pay particular attention to dialogue in tense action scenes; a character will not have time to stop and ramble when they are under attack. Judgements, and therefore words, will likely be quick and brash during these scenes.