For me, the most challenging aspect of fiction is dialogue—conversation that is not quite real, elevated and efficient and yet believable, brilliantly pointed but never clever, the sound of the last hour and still somehow special.
You can find plenty of advice on how to write dialogue, and some of it is quite good. As in most writing matters, however, nothing substitutes for practice. Below, you’ll find practice. Having read many samples of what’s online about dialogue, here’s what I’ve done:
“Some things can’t be called ‘unexpected’ because they’re never expected.”
Neither looked up from their reading.
“Here’s a person talking about an unexpected phone call, but how often do you expect one? That’s why phones ring, right?”
“Never thought about it.”
She glanced up to discover him facing the page, gesticulating, mixing the air with his one free hand in that familiar way.
“Like the weather. We’re having unexpected weather because it’s August and cool, but weather itself is always changing, so you don’t routinely think of weather as expected or unexpected. The nature of weather is to be changeable.”
“Why does it matter whether a phone call—or weather—is expected or unexpected?”
“That’s exactly my point. It doesn’t. People are always anticipating what’s next, what’s next, what’s next, and if it doesn’t match what we think, well…”
She’d looked away because he never returned her regard. His unfinished sentence lay between them like severed snakes.
“Well?” she said.
“Well, what happened to ‘Expect the unexpected’? Everyone is always planning and scheming. Humans never account for some supposed mishap being exactly what should happen. Or, if it shouldn’t happen, that it’s completely reasonable thing to happen.”
“Don’t say ‘which humans?’ You always say that.”
“You always generalize.”
“What else can I do? It drives me crazy people don’t learn. They just do the same stupid shit over and over.”
She snapped her book shut, and the noise alerted him to look up, his reading glasses reflecting her across the table, his gray eyes above them.
“Seems like you’d learn to expect that,” she said.
“Now you’re just being clever.”
He closed his book and pushed it to a spot between them.
“No,” she said, “you’re being clever. As usual. People do what they do. Deal with it.”
“I don’t have to approve.”
“No you don’t.”
His body tensed as if he meant to stand, but he didn’t. He stayed at the table, eying her.
“Because you never do approve,” she said, “just go on and on about stuff that won’t change, ever.”
He relaxed into his seat again, and a smile started to form on his lips.
“Don’t say it.”
“You don’t know what I’m going to say.”
“I don’t care what you’re going to say. There’s a difference.”
They held the silence between them a few more seconds, then pulled their books toward them, found their places, and began reading again.