In revising my current work in progress, I found I focused more on the way a character slips a clue into the conversation or drops a telling point while engaged in an irrelevant activity and less on the dialogue itself.
In every conversation, in life and in fiction, two interlocutors have different goals. They could be lovers or best friends or enemies or co-workers—any two individuals—and no matter their relationship, each wants something different. This may not be spelled out for the reader, or even for the writer, but if the character has authenticity he or she will want something specific.
Consider a conversation between two co-workers who are on a team to develop a program for a fundraiser. They both want the fundraiser to succeed because if it doesn’t, each one will look bad but also their jobs may be in jeopardy. But under that umbrella are hidden other interests. One may be acutely aware of his subordinate position on the committee and want desperately to show what he can do. Another might be aware that there is a general air of competition around them, and this makes her nervous. She wants to focus on the work, and not on the interpersonal problems. Another member of the team may be struggling with a crush on one of the others and think twice or thrice on everything he says in order to not make a bad impression. And together they and the rest of the team have to come up with a plan. They agree on the over-arching goal but nothing else.
Two women have lunch together, and both work as editors in different publishing houses. But one wants to quit and find something less stressful to do, while the other is hankering after a raise and ways to impress her boss. As colleagues, it’s important they get along, but they are at opposite ends of the professional spectrum now.
One of the ways I ensure my characters sound different as they work their way through the dialogue is to match their vocabulary with their feelings. Of the two editors, only one will feel “trashed,” her suggestions “ripped to shreds,” and her editing “picked apart.” The other woman will hear instead which passages “missed the mark in her comments to the author,” and look for more sensitive phrasing she can use in her work. In her conversation, she wants “possibilities,” but not “dead ends” or “corners” with no way out.
The competitive co-worker on the fundraising team may be looking for a colleague’s weak spot by listening for “not sure that will work” or “we haven’t tried that before for a reason,” all those phrases that suggest timidity. This is his opening, and he’ll take it with “we can make this work” and “I’ve got a great strategy for this” enthusiasm.
For a mystery writer, any dialogue can be an exchange of significant information between a character and the reader, but it is different between the characters themselves, and that’s what I try to keep in mind as I write and revise.