There's a lot of mediocre dialogue writing advice out there.
Writing is a practice. It is a meditation. It is truth. It is rending. It is painful. It is work. It is rejection. It is (sometimes) acceptance. And it never gets easier, only harder.
It gets harder because as your understanding of what is good writing grows, the more you see it is about capturing the entirety of a person, scene and situation with each page, paragraph, sentence and word. Nothing on the page should be lazy. All of it, down to individual words, needs to carry its weight and pull in the same direction.
In the average novel there are sixty-thousand to eighty-thousand words. Each word is a world unto itself and should have a reason for being on the page. Therefore, making sure every single of tens of thousands of words is exactly just right is a massive undertaking.
But we do it. And those of us dedicated to this craft constantly, obsessively seek to get better.
Dialogue is an area where the artist, muse, intellect, and emotions must work collaboratively to produce individual words of heft. There is basic advice that is said to all writers seeking to improve:
- Listen to how people speak to get rhythm, tone, language, etc., but don't repeat it verbatim on the page because it won't read as real and authentic.
- Less is more.
- Keep it simple ("I'm angry," she said. Not, "I'm angry," she said angrily).
- Get out of the way as much as possible by not using he said or she said too much.
- Place tidbits of movement into the dialogue (She wiped her beaded brow then looked at him. "I'm angry.").
- Minimize dialect.
- Ensure each word moves plot and story forward as well as characterization.
- Read it out loud and act it out.
- Use silence.
- Punctuate properly.
These are the ten pieces of advice you will receive on probably every single web page with a label or header claiming to offer the best most explosive advice the greatest literary agents of all time will tell you.
And the fact is, as a writer, none of it is life changing or going to make you go "A ha! My understanding of how to write good dialogue is now advanced one giant leap."
So, what to do? You have to have empathy. By this I mean that you have to follow all the cliche rules, but when putting words on the page, you have to put your consciousness into the head of your character(s). Therapist call this Theory of The Mind, which according to Wikipedia is:
"Theory of Mind (often abbreviated ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own."
In short, Empathy. Empathy is like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets. The less we use it, it atrophies. To have empathy you have to experience life. You have to want to know people. You have to work at seeing the world through another person's eyes. You have to feel what they feel in the way they feel it.
For example, a person sitting at a bus station will describe it differently if they are on their way to college or coming home to bury a parent. And their internal and external dialogue will reflect all of the unique aspects of how they are interpreting and feeling this experience. It is not just happy or sad. It is conflicted emotions, thoughts, desires, fears, wants, needs, and on and on.
Good dialogue captures this in a word or two. A good conversational scene captures this in each word and phrase.
Now that you know how immense the job is of writing strong dialogue, it feels harder, doesn't it? And that's the nature of good writing advice. It lights the bulb above your head because it allows you to see the true nature of the work.
One last thing: Writing is also joy.