Question: I realize that scenes of dialogue and action are the key to moving the plot along and developing the characters. But how do I handle dialogue? I'm afraid mine sometimes sounds almost too natural, and the rest of the time, I'm afraid it sounds stilted and artificial.
Answer: Dialogue can be tricky, because it IS artificial. It's not real speech, any more than your characters are "real" human beings in the flesh and blood sense. Dialogue, as already noted, is a technique used in drama and fiction to move the plot along and to reveal character. Because it's a technique, it's something all writers can learn how to do effectively.
For each scene, as much as you are able, decide who knows what, who wants to know what and who needs to know what. Decide if there's someone who's deliberately withholding information, or if a character is lying. Think about who has the most to lose in any given scene, because that's the point of view that's usually the most compelling. Write all the information down if you must - I like to keep a legal pad beside me as I type so I can jot down things I need to remember. Post-it notes are great too, but be careful not to lose them :). Create or edit your scene with all this information in mind. Don't worry about the dialogue, just get the characters talking to each other.
Then comes one of the best parts of writing - for me, anyway. Read your dialogue aloud. The key to effective dialogue is how it sounds. Remember that it's not real speech - it's mimicking speech. You'll leave out all the ums and ahs and a lot of the social interaction stuff we spend a lot of time doing.
Dialogue is different from speech because it has a purpose other than simply communication or connection. It's an integral part of the story. But the best dialogue "sounds" right. It gives the characters unique and distinct voices. It allows the reader to "hear." So shut your door, close your windows, warn your kids that they might hear you talking to yourself and answering yourself, maybe even in three or four different voices. Effective dialogue is a subtle combination of information and sound.
Happy writing... Annie