There are many dimensions of dialogue in fiction just as there are in a real conversation.
However, a conversation in reality and a fictional conversation are two completely different things.
In reality conversations stop and start, segue from one topic to another and trail off into nothingness. In fiction dialogue cannot be this open ended. Readers get bored quickly.
There must be a point and direction to fictional dialogue that furthers the story.
This means that fictional dialogue must mimic a real conversation while keeping the story moving forward.
Let’s see how this is done.
One of the most common dimensions of dialogue is direct speech.
In direct speech you show the characters actually saying the words they are saying.
“So, Chris, what are your plans for the future?”
“I’m going to be an astronaut.”
This is perfect if you have something very specific that you want to show your characters talking about.
But, perhaps you’ve got a character who speaks broken English. Portraying the dialogue word for word would be excruciating.
In situations like this use reported speech. For example:
He was difficult to understand. He often mispronounced words and even forgot whole sentences like he was reading from some ancient manuscript only partially recovered. Sometimes he just gave up completely, saying that he was too drunk and he could “hardly translate it out no more.”
Do you see how reported speech effectively condensed a much larger conversation?
It gets the point across to the reader and there is even some direct speech included in quotes in order to give the reader a flavor of the conversation without becoming boring.
I Didn’t Say That. Oh, Yes You Did.
One of the most important dimensions of dialogue is body language. Because good dialogue is more than two characters talking.
It is what is not said as well.
To create realistic dialogue it must be interspersed with description. Let’s take a look.
“So, Chris,” Magda said, but then hesitated like she wanted to ask a question but wasn’t sure how to pose it. “What are your plans for the future?”
You see how separating the first part of her question from the second part of her question mimics the pregnant pause she would have had in reality and creates drama?
Let’s Keep Reading
“I’m going to be an astronaut,” I said and told her how I planned my future over the past few years.
Here we’ve got more direct speech mixed with reported speech. The reader just needs to know he wants to be an astronaut but not the rest of the details.
The Old Man’s ears perked up when I said I intended to become a pilot in the Navy after I studied astronomy in college. But thankfully he kept his mouth shut.
The old man doesn’t say anything but his actions do. We see that he is engaged in the conversation as a listener.
“Then I will join NASA and…”
“No,” Magda said. Then, laying her long fingers on the table like she was trying to brace herself, she paused a moment to control her voice. “I mean now that you’ve left home.”
Dialogue is much more than characters speaking to each other. It is also much more than the specific words they say.
By mixing direct and reported speech and by adding occasional descriptions you will become a master of the many dimensions of dialogue.