"So, what are we gonna talk about today?" he said.

I shifted in my seat and tugged at the bottom of my sport-coat.

"I thought maybe we'd discuss the importance of good dialogue."

He snorted: "What would be the point of that? Everyone knows good dialogue is like good breeding: It doesn't draw attention to itself by proclaiming how clever and edgy it is."

"Well, maybe everyone doesn't know it."

"You can't be serious. Other that the grammatical mechanics like specific punctuation and the like, people listen to dialogue all their lives. They're all experts at it. Writing dialogue should be as easy as eating or breathing."

"Flapdoodle!" I shouted. "Writers often try to write what they think people sound like, but in reality they can only approximate what they think people sound like. In reality, we all stumble over ourselves constantly, use stupid-sounding turns of phrase and pause at the least opportune moments. If you wrote that, your work would label you a fool. Unless you're quoting William F. Buckley, don't use dialogue in a direct one-to-one ratio."

He waved his hand in disdain, as if swatting away the world's most annoying fly.

"Don't wax mathematical. It's tiresome."

"Not math," I said. "But music. Dialogue is musical. There's a rhythm to it, when two or more people are talking. There are beats and rests, chattering trills of excitement and crashing cymbals of discord. Arguments are bombastic, love-scenes are tender, egotists are erudite and peasants are base."

"You must mean 'bass', if your musical analogy is to hold up, my friend."

I realized I was now thrusting myself halfway from the chair, ready to pounce on the fellow if he scoffed at me. I slumped back and took a long breath.

"All I can say is that there are two rules-of-thumb to make dialogue better. First, consider carefully the language a particular character would use. What kind of vocabulary do they command? Are they articulate or minimalist in their speech? Do they speak with an accent? Are they well-bred or are they a child of society's undergrowth? Every character is different in these respects, just as real people are."

He crossed his legs, visibly relaxing.

"And second?"

"I would also advise one to break up sections of conversation with snippets of physical action. Have someone clear their throats or pick their nose, tap away at a keyboard in between sentences or make meaningful small-talk during hands at a poker game. People do not converse in a vacuum."

"I see. Anything else?"

"Yes, one last thing. Avoid the temptation to use every conversational tag under the sun. 'He chortled', 'he guffawed', 'he snickered', 'he chuckled', 'he whooped', 'he cackled' and 'he howled' will generally not work any better than the simple 'he laughed'. On occasion, you might want to use something more colorful, but the absolutely simplest tag is the best most of the time. Remember, like good breeding, our writing shouldn't call attention to itself."

"I imagine as far as tags go, 'he said' is the most abused."

"Yes, absolutely. I either use 'he said' or nothing at all at least ninety percent of the time. Nearly every successful author I can think of does the same. If the dialogue is well thought-out, you don't need to embellish it. It's like a perfectly seasoned bowl of chili. Sprinkling salt all over it doesn't make it better, it just makes it salty and often less palatable."

Knowingly, we both rose from our respective chairs. There was a click and creak from the bedroom door and I turned to see my wife looking at us from across the room. She had a decidedly perplexed look on her face.

"Honey..." she said, slowly. "Why are you sitting in front of the mirror? And why are you wearing a sport-coat? And where are your pants?"