Sunday, August 16, 2015

Three Deliberate Uses for Dialogue

By Kasie Whitener

My drafts are usually 85% dialogue. I get characters in a room, get them talking, and see what happens. During revision, I add the narrative stuff: action, setting, costumes, facial expressions. But initially, it’s just the conversation.

Dialogue is valuable for breaking up narration, adding texture and dynamics to the story. It’s also a great way to establish characters by letting the reader hear their voices. Here are three deliberate uses for dialogue that can be employed whenever you see a large hunk of narrative that is dragging the story down.

Deliver Exposition

My favorite teen TV show, The Vampire Diaries, is excellent at this one. The characters frequently recount what happened in previous episodes as if reminiscing.

“Like the time you killed your doppleganger by feeding her the cure for vampirism?”

When dialogue delivers exposition, it not only tells the reader what’s happened before the story began, it shows which of the characters are familiar with the exposition, too.

A writer can say, “Here’s what there is to know and who knows it,” by delivering exposition through dialogue.

Build Tension

This is one of those “show, don’t tell” skills. It’s easy enough for a writer to say of a main character: "He trembled with rage."

Using dialogue to build tension, the writer might say:

“Come closer.”

“Don’t hurt me.”

“It’s too late to avoid that.”

“But, you promised.”

"His voice so low she barely heard it, he repeated, 'Come closer.'”

After a scene builds with dialogue and two characters have reached a resolution, the scene needs narrative to give the reader a break. You know you’ve written too much tension into the dialogue when you read it aloud and run out of breath.

Change Direction

I call this pivot-point dialogue. It’s where the scene is building to a certain position, a particular outcome, until someone delivers a pivot via dialogue.

Narrative delivers pivot points by having the character do something unexpected. Maybe the villain falls to his knees and begs mercy, maybe he jumps off a cliff and soars into the ocean below. But dialogue pivot points are when a character says something unexpected.

My favorite happens in The Princess Bride when Westley and Prince Humperdinck are squaring off and the Prince says, “Surrender!” and Wesley says, “Death first!” and Buttercup shouts, “Will you promise not to hurt him?”

Both men look at her, stunned, comically responding with, “What was that?”

Readers know Buttercup has been making bargains to survive. It’s not surprising that she’d do what she could to protect Westley. But it surprises both of the men that she sees herself as having the ability to do so.

Characters cannot just say crazy things to change the direction of the story. Pivot dialogue points are the result of purposeful character development. The characters must have something to gain or they must be sacrificing something in order to prevent a particular outcome.

Let your characters speak and the story will tell itself.


Michelle said...

I too write the dialogue first and then go back and fill in the narrative.

I write legal mysteries and have started a novel with writing the trial (even though it doesn't appear until well into the book) Talk about dialogue - attorney asks ? - witness answers, attorney asks ? - witness answers, attorney asks ? - witness answers, every now and then the other attorney objects. Dialogue after dialogue after dialogue.

Kasie Whitener said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kasie Whitener said...

Thanks for reading and responding, Michelle. I bet legal dialogue gives you the chance to use jargon to build characters. Knowing a witness's vocabulary would also provide insight and the questioning allows exposition to be delivered nicely as well.