January 30, 2020
Dialogue serves a number of purposes in a book or story.
It brings immediacy since dialogue takes place at a specific moment in time, thus bringing the reader into the story. It allows us to get to know characters through their own words. It allows us to bring more unique voices to a story. It allows us to demonstrate conflict and relationship. But it also helps move the story along (if the piece is well written).
In other words, dialogue is part of the plot process.
In fiction, plot is the purposeful journey from beginning to end. Plot is always moving toward something. Now the end of the journey might be a surprise to the reader and to the characters, but it needs to feel like the appropriate way for the story journey to end. Plot is about pressure on a character and how that affects the characters’ actions. So it could be argued that plot is about action, and thus not about dialogue, but dialogue can play two very important parts in plot.
Dialogue lets the characters check in with the reader. If I'm writing an action-adventure story with a group of characters who are fleeing a monster in a jungle, they are going to need to physically respond to the plot––a lot––so much of what I write will be narrative action. But if all I do is action with the occasional "watch out" or "this way," the reader is eventually going to lose track of the overarching plot. Even in an action-adventure story, more is going on than just running from a monster, and dialogue can help keep readers oriented to all the bits of plot going on. Let's think about that imaginary book where characters are fleeing a monster in a jungle and peek at a tiny bit of dialogue:
Joel scrambled up the cliff face, his heart pounding every time loose bits of rock crumbled under his fingers. He didn't look back, not to check on his sister and not to check on the progress of the monster. He put every bit of effort into up, right until something grabbed the collar of his jacket and jerked him into a dark hole in the side of the cliff.
With a howl, Joel fought against the gripping talons only to be told, "Calm down! It's me."
Joel stared unbelieving into his father's blood-smeared face. "I thought you died." His voice barely made it out of his throat.
"Where's your sister?"
Joel looked back at the bright light outside the narrow cave. "Climbing up, I guess."
"You guess?" The disappointment and shock in his father's voice made Joel's stomach clench, but he had no chance to respond as his father pushed him aside to get to the cave opening.
When we look at this dialogue, we get a peek into both characterization and plot. We see relationships. The obvious relationship we peek at is the one between Joel and his father since they are right there talking to one another, but we also learn something about Joel's relationship with his sister. He's clearly left her behind to save himself and that is affecting his relationship with his father. I wanted the scene to show a certain strain between them, which is one reason for the choice to reference the parent as "father" instead of "dad." It's a small thing, but every choice you make needs to be purposeful.
Also, the dialogue shows us some active plot information as well. Clearly the father and children had been separated, and probably in some dramatic way since Joel thought his father died. This is news to us who have joined in the middle of this story, but for the reader who has been reading all along, the reference is simply a marker to keep the reader oriented in the story. The marker reminds us that Joel has been operating on the assumption that his father is dead.
Notice also that the things this tiny scrap of dialogue manages to do takes up very little word count. In situations like this, people aren't making long speeches to orient the reader to what is going on. Joel and his father would be strictly in the moment here. Joel wouldn't slip into a flashback scene of remembering a time when he allowed his younger sister to wander away when he was supposed to be watching her because that would drain some of the tension out of the scene. The father wouldn't launch into a long lecture about responsibility because he has more pressing matters to handle: finding his daughter.
Dialogue needs to fit within the pacing and logical circumstances of the scene. Don't give in to soap opera dialogue that orients by having characters frequently tell one another things they already know.
Dialogue Pushes Plot
Dialogue scenes can also push plot along by showing us major change in a situation. Let's consider our imaginary story about Joel's family and the monster. We'll peek in on a spot much later in the story where Joel has gotten separated from his family and discovered another person hiding out from the monster. Joel is initially thrilled not to be alone, but we can't leave Joel with the stranger. So how can we push the plot with dialogue to make the change we need? Look at this scrap from a scene of fire building:
"Let me try," Joel said as he pulled his broken glasses out of his pocket, along with the note from his teacher. He squatted in the sun and used the one intact lens to shine a tight beam of sun on the paper. In moments it began to smoke and Matt scrambled over to feed the fire. Soon they had crackling flames.
Matt beamed at him as he fed the fire more dry sticks. "Good job, kid."
"Thanks." Joel scanned the clearing for more kindling and his gaze fell on Matt's bag, half spilled on the ground. Something white shone from inside the bag. White and round. "An egg? You have one of that thing's eggs?"
Matt rushed over to gather his things, his response almost a growl. "Mind your own business, kid."
"Dad said that thing was protecting it's nest," Joel said. "And it was, because of you."
"Do you have any idea what a viable egg from an actual dinosaur would be worth?"
Joel backed away from the fire. "Not worth dying."
As you can see, the scene was one of change. Joel goes from seeing Matt as a possible rescuer from his immediate danger to seeing him as the instigator of the danger. This change cannot help but affect how Joel acts. It applies pressure to Joel that forces action, and that is the very core of plot. The pressure is played out in the dialogue. Although every bit of dialogue may not affect plot, most of your dialogue should include orienting the reader to our place in the plot or pushing the plot ahead. Dialogue's effect on plot should be subtle. Long monologues may be helpful for announcing change or catching the reader up on information, but they'll end up failing in the really important thing dialogue needs to do: suggest real conversation.
Dialogue isn't an exact replication of real conversation. Real conversation is often hesitant, rambling, semi-coherent, and pointless. Dialogue cannot be those things. Real conversation can be confusing and boring. Dialogue cannot do that for fear of losing the reader.
Dialogue always has a purpose (and usually more than one) but it can't be so focused on purpose that it fails to suggest real conversation. Any time a reader says, "Real people don't talk like that," you've jerked the reader out of the story. You've broken the reading spell and reminded the reader that these characters aren't real. You've disallowed your story's chance of mattering to that reader. So we do want to suggest real speech while also fulfilling purpose. It's a juggling act we do every time we write dialogue, but sometimes a challenge makes things more fun.
So take up the challenge of analyzing all your dialogue in the year ahead.
- Does it suggest real speech?
- What is the purpose of each dialogue exchange?
- Are you balancing real speech and purpose in ways that are clear and believable?
Do that and you'll have a story that will captivate. What more could we want than that?
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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