One of my professors constantly impressed on his students that dialogue should have a purpose. Nothing infuriated him more than mundane chit chat in a scene. So what does meaningful dialogue look like?
Let’s revisit the scene I invented earlier.
Bob sat at the table as Jane took in the delicious pizza sitting in front of them. He contemplated if he should warn her about her train or not.
“I have some have some pertinent information that is going to help you later on down the road because I care about you, about this guy you’re seeing,” Bob said. His face was etched with concern. Jane never really sought advice from anyone, especially when it came to her love life. She was too proud to ask other people for advice; a pride that had prevented her from seeking help several times, which could have ended several unfortunate ends to relationships. What was her mantra? “The best wisdom is gained from experience.” Ah yes! Making all of these mistakes was a quest for wisdom, or some other high purpose.
“Look, Bob, I know you’re just trying to be a friend and everything, but I’m a big girl. I have to figure this out for myself.” Jane shoved another slice of pizza in her mouth, like it would magically end the conversation.
“Really, Jane. I’m trying to be serious here,” Bob said, shifting to a more serious tone. “This train you’re supposed to be getting on in ten minutes, if you don’t stop shoving pizza in your mouth, your going to miss it. He’s not going to magically come sweeping down just because you missed your train for a pizza craving. I’ve talked to him, trust me on this. He’s not going to be too appreciative if you miss it; this may make or break your relationship with him. You have to get out of this shop and get on that train now.”
“While I appreciate you for advice, you really don’t understand the relationship a girl has with pizza some times.” Jane wiped her hands on the nearby napkin. “I suppose you’re going to want some thanks for trying to be helpful, but I’m not going to do that. I am going to sit here and let you watch me eating pizza. You’re free to leave at any time.” She returned to her pizza and proceeded to devour the remaining three slices.
Bob realised that he was unlikely to persuade Jane to leave the pizza parlor to get to her train on time. He wasn’t interested in sitting there while Jane finished her pizza, so he rose from his chair and left the restaurant with a sigh of defeat as he walked out the door.
I would consider this meaningful dialogue. Why? We’re learning something about Jane’s notions of wisdom and her willingness to accept advice. We also have some information on this other guy that Jane has been seeing. If this had been an earlier draft, this scene might not have even existed, or it might have existed in lengthy paragraphs of expository dialogue. This, however, strikes a nice balance of description and conversation, it’s natural, and there’s no awkward partings of information because Bob just sounds concerned about Jane’s relationship with this guy. For all we know, the relationship between Jane and this other guy is a little rocky right now and Bob just wants to see Jane happy. Maybe this is part of a coming of age story or an intriguing romance plot. This scene could exist in several scenarios.
This scene could have gone several different ways in a first draft or even a second draft, but what it comes down to is giving the reader conversations that have a function in the story. If 90% of your conversations are just about the weather and it is doing absolutely nothing for the story, it needs to be cut out or be summarized in the narrative.
Writing “Jane ran into several friends at the grocery store. They talked about mundane things like the weather, how the bills pile wasn’t getting any shorter or less expensive. As a grown up, she began to appreciate how even the most mundane conversations helped her stay connected to her friends from high school” accomplishes the same thing as recording every conversation Jane has in the store, but cuts down on the annoying ask on the reader’s part to slog through each and every conversation.