I was writing dialogue today. I was zipping along, feeling pretty good about things, when I suddenly realized that nothing was happening. My characters were just standing around talking to each other. They were sounding snappy, to be sure, but they were, in the end, just standing there.
I reminded myself that dialogue only works if it moves the story forward -- if, in other words, it shows the reader something important about a character, or leads a character to make a decision, or presents them with an opportunity to take some kind of risk. It can't just be like pretty wallpaper. And so I went back, and figured out what the point of the scene was, and then returned to the dialogue and saw that most of it needed to be cut.
The part I kept passed one important test: it revealed the difference between the character's surface (i.e. what she is saying) and the character's interior life (i.e. what she actually thinks.) In this case, my dialogue showed a character -- the mother -- saying one thing, when we know from an earlier section of the scene that she believes another thing entirely. And THAT moves the story along.
Want to learn more about how to write good dialogue? Here are two simple steps:
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