Ursula K. Le Guin has said that scenes with dialogue are where emotion happens in fiction. According to the emerging body of neuroscience on fiction, such scenes are also where fiction most clearly approximates actual lived experience, that “vivid and continuous dream” of which John Gardner spoke.
That may help to explain why readers love dialogue—some so much so that they’ll skip right over your meticulously written descriptions and summaries to get straight to the goods: people talking to each other.
But dialogue is also a place where things can easily go south. As an editor, I have become far too acquainted with all the ways that otherwise competent writers can absolutely hamstring their fiction—precisely at the point it counts most.
1. Said Bookisms
Say what you will about the Bible, The Prince, and Fifty Shades of Grey—as far as I’m concerned, one of the documents most destructive to the project of civilization is Said Is Dead. Starting in the eighties and continuing to this day, many elementary-school English teachers have seen fit to foist this guide upon their hapless students, to the detriment of us all.
In it, the writer is instructed to throw over plain old said and asked for such highfalutin alternatives as queried, snarled, intoned, and god help us, even cajoled. Which, after all, are more specific verbs, and they help us avoid repetition. So what’s the problem?