Few would doubt the validity of his comment with regard to film, but should a novelist regard compelling dialogue as being equally important?
Yes, of course.
Novels no longer dominate the story market in the way they did a few decades ago – they have to compete with the deluge of new and exciting products, such as films and games, for the attention of their readers. Additionally, audio-visual products influence what consumers have come to expect from their entertainment – faster pace, higher stakes, and yes, authentic and gripping dialogue.
The crafting of compelling dialogue is the subject of countless of books and courses, but here is a short checklist on what great dialogue should accomplish:
Dialogue should provide information necessary for the understanding of the story.
Dialogue should reveal emotion.
Dialogue should advance the plot.
Dialogue should characterise both the speaker and the person to whom it is spoken.
Here is an example from my novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel:
Physicist Benjamin Vlahos’s wife, Mitanda, has been dead for thirty years, when she appears to him during the worst storm to ever hit the north east coast of Australia, and tries to persuade him to move on with his life.
Miranda: “Take the handkerchief from your pocket and place it back inside the box. Close the lid and never open it again.”
Miranda: “You know why.”
Benjamin: “I don’t know how to move on.”
Miranda: “You do. You must.”
Benjamin: “What about the math? What about the answers I seek?”
Miranda: “You already know the answers to the most important questions. The rest is gossamer wafting in the wind.
Benjamin: “Is it?”
Miranda: “Finish the story. Finish it in the way you want to.”
Benjamin: “It’s too difficult. I don’t have an ending.”
Miranda: “Do you still believe that? After all these years?”
Benjamin: “I believe in the math.”
Analysing the dialogue in The Nostalgia of Time Travel we discover that this is a story about a man stuck in the past. Benjamin is too tortured and tormented to move on with his life. Miranda defines the central beat in the plot: “Finish the story. Finish it in the way you want to.” This is the only way that Benjamin will end the years of stasis.
Benjamin, then, is characterised as a man steeped in regret, unsure of himself, unwilling to live his life. Miranda, on the other hand, is calmly confident, gently encouraging. The dialogue has to convey all of this.
Importantly, emotion, character, and plot are communicated sub-textually, rather than through on-the-nose dialogue. For example, when Miranda asks Benjamin to put the handkerchief in the box and never open the lid again, he asks, “Why?” Her reply comes indirectly: “You know why.” The reader knows the answer to the question from a previous context, so a direct answer is unnecessary.
Great dialogue performs several functions simultaneously.