The kids have eaten my brain, so I'm not going to really be able to come up with a proper post. Instead, when I saw someone else's post about really bad dialog and realized that I could cobble it together with a post from my old blog on the same topic, it struck me as a good idea. No, I haven't been getting much sleep.
Anyway, the post that attracted my attention was yet another take-down of Mark Trail dialog by the Comics Curmudgeon. The dialog in question reads:
TRAIL: Sergeant McQueen, how is he?
RANDOM EXPOSITOR: He's fine!
Oh, no, that wasn't his response--I'm sorry, my logic circuits kicked in there. No, he responds to the question, "how is he?" with:
RANDOM EXPOSITOR: He’s very popular in the community!
The Comics Curmudgeon (whose name is Josh) rightly adds this exchange to the "prodigiously long" list of "Questions And Responses In Mark Trail That Would Never, Ever Be Uttered By Humans."
Josh is a little obsessed with Mark Trail's bad dialog, and if you're wondering why, you should watch his Mark Trail Theater video. Watching actual flesh-and-blood people interact via Mark Trail dialog is freaking hilarious, because it really brings home how unnatural it is. Mainly, I think the problem is that the writer is trying to shoehorn in information, and he doesn't bother to match the answer to the question--instead he creates a non sequitur. ("What do you think of Sergeant McQueen?"/"Oh, everybody here just loves him." would work a little better.)
[Random side note: When I was a reporter, I sometimes experienced the joys of interviewing people who had been told that the only way to deal with the media is to decide what their talking points are and to spout them off regardless of the question. The result was quite like Mark Trail dialog, and I would have to say things like, "What does your answer have to do with my question?" or I would have to repeat the same question over and over and over until the person decided to start being a human again.]
Dialog can certainly be used for exposition. For example, the Master and Commander books are filled with incomprehensible 18th-century British Navy lingo. So Patrick O'Brian has one of the two main characters be a landlubber who knows absolutely nothing about how ships work. Everybody has to explain everything to him, and in doing so, they explain it to the reader--how convenient!
But I think the most important thing about dialog is that it be something you can imagine somone actually saying under those particular circumstances. People don't answer different questions than the ones asked unless they are either being evasive or being rude. People don't spout off about their political beliefs for hours on end unless they are brutal dictators or total bores. People don't publicly humiliate other people unless they are assholes or very, very angry. The stuff that comes out of a character's mouth speaks to their, um, character, so think long and hard about how someone is going to say something. Don't just go for what makes the story easy, because then Josh will incessantly joke about how your main character is autistic.
And keep in mind the particular situation. When you ignore circumstances...well, I think I'll just cut-n-paste from my 2007 blog entry here:
...I started out on V.C. Andrews' Flowers in the Attic today.
Dear God. I mean, it doesn't quite hit the wildly hysterical highs of the prose in The Bridges of Madison County, but it's pretty bad. Is there anything more inadvertently funny than purple prose?
The book starts out with these kids' dad getting killed in a car accident. And this is how a police officer breaks the news to the mom. Keep in mind, this is DIALOG--these words are supposed to be coming out of somebody's mouth:
"According to the accounts, which we've recorded, there was a motorist driving a blue Ford weaving in and out of the lefthand lane, apparently drunk, and he crashed head-on into your husband's car. But it seems your husband must have seen the accident coming, for he swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but a piece of machinery had fallen from another car, or truck, and this kept him from completing his correct defensive driving maneuver, which would have saved his life. But as it was, your husband's much heavier car turned over several times, and still he might have survived, but an oncoming truck, unable to stop, crashed into his car, and again the Cadillac spun over . . . and then . . . it caught on fire."
Of course, later the police officer says the father died "instantly." You know, instantly AFTER the crash, and the flipping over, and the second crash, and the second flipping over, and the fire. THAT'S when he died instantly.