For the most part, dialogue consists of the words that come out of characters’ mouths to cover up everything that needs to be said. And the degree of concealment or inaccuracy is what helps to explain or reveal the character to the reader.
Dialogue covers what would be said, but for the fear of 1) saying the truth, 2)startling another character, 3) offending, 4) revealing too much and thereby getting the character into danger.
Even though dialogue is often one of concealment, the art of creating dialogue comes in the author’s being able to hint at what needs to be said even when the character thinks it is being concealed. (like that clever pitch that gets a batter to swing at a pitch with dreams he is going to hit it out of the park.)
Dialogue gives us a chance to look in on characters who usually don’t have the insight and the perspective that the narrator has, and that we, in conspiracy with the narrator, may also share. We hear the characters fumbling around in darkness.
Yet dialogue is a covenant of the familiar. Characters have to sound as if they are real, which is where jargon and dialect come in. Dialogue calibrates characters ("Damn you! Will you put that cigarette out?"), shows what they really are about, and it authenticates the writer by proving she has "been there" and personally knows who she has created. Dialogue also communicates the unspoken: "You burned the toast again." And it introduces tension ("I knew you were a loser all along!")
Like evidence, dialogue seems to be happening in the present, right before your eyes, so that you can compare what the author wants you to think or conclude with what is "really" happening. Dialogue breaks into the narration and can change direction in a second.
Dialogue actually accomplishes one (or more) of several things:
1) It conceals what needs to be said, to show character motivation;
2) It describes the action, sets the stage
3) It “paints” the character (shows not only how he/she talks, but also how he/she reveals self to the world)
4) It advances the plot;
5) It gets the cattle to Abilene;
6) It finally speaks the truth.
And whatever it is doing, it should usually sound like real talk! The reader should be fooled into believing she is really overhearing something in the world.
Dialogue gives another and alternative platform of communication that is distinct from the narrator’s voice. It is another character talking, or even the narrator talking, but this time, externally, not internally.
Dialogue can also be a platform of humor, which is usually another layer of evasion from the deeper communication that might otherwise take place. Getting the laugh brings depth to the surface for a shared moment of mirth.
“I’ll be down in just a minute,” said Ninette after she returned in shame from her attempt to escape the whorehouse in Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “Magic.” And what she really was saying was: “I surrender myself forever, but only after one last moment to myself.”
Sometimes one person wants to get to a serious level of truth dialogue and the other resists, and this forms the heart of the story. We root for the truth character, and the resistance forms the conflict. And we learn, or we think we learn, where miscommunication screws things up. As in Jerome Widman’s “My Father Sits in the Dark:”
“Is something wrong, Pop?”
“Nothing son, nothing at all.”
“Then why do you sit here all alone, thinking, til late?”
“It’s restful son, I like it.”
“Well what do you think about? Why do you just sit here? What’s worrying you? What do you think about?”
“Nothing’s worrying me, son. I’m all right. It’s just restful. That’s all. Go to bed, son.”
The other side of this, of course, is the character who tries to be heard at a meaningful level but isn’t listened to.