Writing dialogue in fiction is not so much about replicating real conversations as it is about creating a realistic impression of how people talk. It is artificial, in other words, and the aspiring novel writer must understand that.
If you were to record a conversation between two people in the real world and reproduce it word for word in a novel, it would read terribly, like the worst passage of dialogue you had ever heard.
So you need to use various tricks to give the essence of real speech without actually writing real speech.
This whole section on how to write dialogue is full of these tricks:
What I want to talk about in this article concerns a far more drastic kind of pruning.
A good rule of thumb is to keep each speech in the novel brief.
Characters should say what they have to say in a sentence or two - three or four at the most - and then shut up so that the other character can respond.
People who drone on and on without letting anyone else get a word in are tedious - in fiction and in real life.
The trouble is that keeping speeches short and concise isn't always possible in novel writing. Sometimes what a character has to say simply cannot be said in a few choice words. It might take several paragraphs, or even several pages of a book in more extreme cases.
But a speech that could potentially drag on for pages and pages - thus boring the readers - is not the only problem here.
A related issue is dialogue that conveys information that the reader already knows.
Imagine that a character in a novel goes on a sea-fishing trip with his best friend...
The friend falls overboard in rough seas and the man jumps in to save him.
Later, when the man returns home to his wife, she sees he is upset and asks what has happened.
So he tells her, and the dialogue runs on for many pages.
The trouble, of course, is that the reader already knows what happened on the fishing trip. Listening to him explain it all to his wife will be dull.
But cutting this scene with the wife is not an option because it represents an important emotional milestone for the couple. (They have been drifting apart lately and the saving-a-friend-from-drowning incident triggers a reconnection.)
What is the novel writer to do?
The first thing to point out is that, despite everything I have said, writing long speeches in a novel, word for word, can be good...
This does not mean, however, that you should allow the character to talk for page after page without interruption...
In a nutshell, long speeches can be fine in a novel, but only if the content of the speech lies at the very core of the story - and only then if the speech is broken up by chunks of narrative or by other characters talking (or something similar).
But what about when long speeches do not lie at the novel's heart?
What about when they have no emotional weight attached to them? What about when a long speech threatens to be plain dull? What about when the reader is already familiar with the information a speech contains?
Basically, you have two options here...
Let us return to that scene I mentioned earlier, the one where the man returns to his wife after saving his friend from drowning.
If this scene were not so important to the story, the easiest thing would be to cut it. But it is important. The husband-wife relationship lies at the very heart of this novel, as it is the emotional trauma of nearly losing his best friend that triggers the man to reconnect with his wife.
What's more, there is a neat symmetry to the two situations...
(Incidentally, this is the kind of symbolism you might want to work into your own novel. But back to writing dialogue...)
Both of these scenes - saving his friend at sea, then returning to his wife to tell her about it - are important. But the fact remains that the long speech, when the man tells his wife what happened that day, will be boring - because the reader already knows the story.
Here, then, are a couple of possible ways to cut or rearrange the scene:
First, you can begin the returning-home scene right at the beginning.
The wife can see something is wrong with her husband the second he walks in. She asks what's up but the man cannot speak. He just stares at her for a few moments then reaches out for her hand. His wife hugs him and, even though she doesn't know what has happened yet, she says everything will be alright.
And the readers know that it will be. The man hasn't spoken a word yet but that will happen later - the long passage of dialogue will happen "off camera", as it were.
Second, begin this scene later, with the man sitting at the kitchen table in fresh clothes and his wife preparing his favorite meal.
She puts the plate down in front of him and makes a joke about him being her hero. The implication here is that the husband has already told her everything that happened, meaning you are now free to concentrate on what is important - the man and woman reconnecting.
And yet the problem still persists: what do you do if there is no escaping a long and potentially boring speech in a novel?
I can virtually guarantee that in every novel you write this problem will arise somewhere. A character will have something to say, something that will take several pages to write, but it is neither exciting enough nor emotional enough to particularly interest the readers - and not inconsequential enough to leave out.
The solution is writing the dialogue indirectly. This is the term I use for dialogue that is told, not shown...
And so, in our example, the scene where the man gets home might look something like this...
When Frank arrived home, he made straight for the drink's cabinet and half-filled a highball with bourbon. Mary was stretched out on the couch watching some quiz show.
"Jesus, Frank, it's not even five yet!"
He swallowed the whiskey in one go, didn't bother to wipe his chin.
"You're scaring me," she said.
Frank sat down next to her, zapped the dumb show.
"What is it?" she asked.
So he told her. He told her about John tripping on that rope and going straight over the side, and about the terrible stab of the icy water when he jumped in after him. He told her...
And so on...
What would take many pages to cover if you were writing dialogue word for word (with quotation marks around it) can be neatly reduced to a brief paragraph.
When the final paragraph of summary is over, simply return to the "real time" of the scene and continue as normal, as though the preceding ten minutes of conversation had not been condensed into thirty seconds of narrative summary.
Note that you do not have to summarize an entire long speech using indirect dialogue...
Similarly, this technique can be used to summarize part or all of a lengthy conversation between two characters.
You could summarize the uninteresting small talk at the start of a conversation, for example, but render the meatier second part of the conversation in proper dialogue.
Whenever you have a long speech given by a character in your novel, or a lengthy exchange of dialogue between two characters, just remember that you do not have to reproduce the dialogue word for word.
Sometimes writing dialogue indirectly is a much better choice.