As an exercise in dialogue, I recorded dialogue that I heard throughout the day. This gave me some surprising insights. I say “hello” instead of “hi” but I say “hey” to the horses. I usually follow a greeting with a compliment. At some point in the last few years, I have slipped into saying “yeah” instead of “yes”.
These may seem pointless observations but when I write dialogue, most my characters say “hi” and “yes” and follow up the greeting with a question. By doing this exercise, I am able to look at patterns of talk. I noticed that most people do not typically greet strangers. And they tend to avoid eye contact with people they do not know. This is good to know for stories.
In my early (and later) attempts at dialogue, people spoke the same. It was formal and in complete sentences. When explaining something, a character might talk for several paragraphs. Real dialogue is much faster paced – with contractions, fragments, and interruptions.
I have been writing dialogue the way I write prose but while the two obey some of the same rules, I now realize that they read very differently. I think dialogue has a more pronounced rhythm, faster pace, and stronger voice. This makes sense since character voices should stand out in the reader’s mind while many authors’ voices are nearly subliminal.
Real dialogue is also unexpected. I had thought it would be very predictable. But to see what I mean, try to write a conversation between you and someone you know well, then start the conversation for real with that person and hear how quickly (or slowly) the conversation begins to diverge from your predictions. Similarly, written dialogue should not be predictable. I am still studying ways to incorporate unexpected turns, based on how they happen in real life.
I suggest performing this exercise yourself, as awkward as it can be. You may realize something new about dialogue.