Dialogue in writing differs from real conversations. Fictional characters rarely ramble on for pages, circumventing what they really want to say with phrases that sound good but have hard to pinpoint meanings. Most of the uh’s, um’s and pauses in conversation are stripped from the dialog. Readers expect a pause to be important. When a character is silent while searching for words, he may be hiding the truth. If an author writes “He stopped and rubbed his chin,” then the readers should pay attention. Perhaps, the character is fabricating a story, and the next few words out of his mouth will be an obvious lie.
If the author doesn’t condense the content of dialog, zealous editors may remove repeated phrases and filler words. This attempt to make the dialog more concise also removes some of the personality from the speakers. Real people have their pet words and favorite phrases. These are not considered a problem in other media. Think about catch phrases repeated so often in particular TV shows that the memory of the character’s voice still rings in our ears. It’s much harder to recall repeated catch phrases used by characters in books because there are not that many. Instead most authors offer up a single memorable quote by the main character.
Of course, the voices of characters in books do not ring in our ears. We’ve never heard them and can only imagine their sound. The timbre and tone of their voice exists in descriptive words and dialog tags, which have become increasingly unpopular. Some writers are dispensing with those completely. Eliminating dialog tags is not a current trend. The oldest example I’ve encountered is the narrative poem called Song of Songs–better known by the title which indicates the attributed author, Song of Solomon. Because it is not easy to read a piece that switches between unidentified people, translators normally include the name of each speaker before their verses.
If well written dialog is not like real dialog, what standards can a writer use to gauge its quality? Sections of conversation often carry the same expectation as scenes in a story. What characters say reveals their traits and motives. Of course, everything characters say cannot be taken at face value. Hints can be provided to show a lack of truthfulness, such as a hesitant voice, a shifting gaze, or another person calling them an outright liar. It is much harder to depict deceitfulness in a character who never says anything.
Dialog also relates conflicts and these conflicts may be the impetus that moves the story forward. People in the story do not have to constantly carry on arguments. A few well-placed frowns, irritated sighs, eye rolls, or sarcastic words can work just as well to reveal tension. This tenseness will not remain constant through a conversation. It may build up, or if the conflict is already evident, it may diffuse the anger. The main idea is to show change.
It would seem if one character receives complements from the others in dialog, that character is the likable one. But, that’s not what really happens. We know why we lavish praise on others in real life–to get them to like us, or to convince them to give us what we want. Don’t veer from the purpose of real conversations even though these are not replicated exactly the same in fiction. The dialog is more concise in books than in real life, but the motives behind the words are often the same.