January 23, 2020
For each scene of your story, you need to make two choices.
First, what will be exchanged between characters? This is the dialogue half of the scene.
The second? Decide where the elements of the scene are happening. This is the setting half of the scene.
The important thing to remember is that the setting and the dialogue must influence each other. If not, the scene won't feel real. In real life, dialogue doesn't take place in a vacuum. If we're talking face to face with someone, we are never stock still and simply speaking words. If we're trying to converse in the grocery store, the bustle around us will affect the conversation (as will concerns about staying parked in the aisle too long and blocking other shoppers.) If the scene is written without the grocery store affecting the conversation, it's going to feel false. And I want to acknowledge that we're all guilty of this now and then. It's so easy to get caught up in the dialogue and forget to ground it in a real place with real action.
Let's look at the same conversation and how it might be affected by three different locations: a school bus, a park, and a haunted house. The point of the conversation doesn't change: Daniel needs to tell Arie that he's terribly afraid of spiders. But how might these three settings affect how this conversation unfolds? Let's imagine.
On the Bus
Arie swung her backpack onto the seat beside her, hoping everyone getting on the bus would take the hint. Naturally, the one person who ignored both her backpack and her glare was Daniel. Clutching his own backpack like a baby, he plopped down on Arie's stuff without looking. "Ow!"
Arie dragged the backpack out from under him. "It wouldn't have hurt if you'd sat somewhere else."
"I have to tell you something."
She rolled her eyes. "What now?"
He leaned so close she could smell the peanut butter on his breath. "I can't come with you Saturday. I can’t. I'm afraid of spiders."
Did you see how the blend of setting, action, and dialogue helped us see this scene in our mind's eye and helped us know these two characters and their relationship better? Let's think about how this same exchange might change if the conversion is taking place in a park.
In the Park
Arie trudged to the bench. She looked around once more before flopping down. Late! He's always late. She should have brought her soccer ball so she'd have something to do while she waited for Daniel to decide to show up.
When Daniel finally ran over, panting hard, Arie snapped, "About time."
"I couldn't find you."
"I told you I'd be on the bench."
He crossed his arms over his chest. "It's a park, Arie. There are twelve benches. Well, thirteen if you count the stone one on the walking trail, but it’s getting crumbly."
She almost asked how he knew exactly how many benches were in the park, but decided she didn't care. "So what do you want anyway?"
His gaze darted around them. Then he whispered, "I can't come with you Saturday."
Arie groaned aloud. "Just get up early and do your chores."
He shook his head. "It's not that. I can't go in there. I'm afraid of spiders."
Again, the setting demands certain things of the characters in order to achieve balance. Since Daniel doesn't sit down, we don't have them as close together, so we wouldn't smell Daniel's peanut butter breath. We do have opportunity for some larger movements because we have the space for them. Always think about your setting, and what it might do to the characters in it. Let's look at one more, the haunted house.
At the Haunted House
The patchy lawn hid enough mole tunnels to force Arie to slow down or she’d turn an ankle as she hurried to the house. "You'd think the town would cut the lawn to keep the snakes out.
Daniel gasped behind her. "Snakes!"
She didn’t even look at him. "Probably not." She climbed the crooked steps to the mushy porch. "My brother said the door isn't locked."
When she didn't hear the squeak of loose steps behind her, she turned. Daniel still stood on the overgrown lawn.
"Come on," she demanded. "Someone could see us."
He shook his head. "I can't go in there."
She pointed at him. "You're the one who told me ghosts aren't real."
He kept shaking his head. "Not ghosts. Spiders. I can't go in there with all the spiders."
Now Your Turn
Compare the three bits of dialogue and consider how the conversation was shaped by the setting. We have the same two kids. We learn slightly different things about them as the situations bring it out of them, but the basic personalities of the children don't change. The point of the conversation and even the tone of the conversation doesn't change. But the content does change as the setting imposes itself on the characters. As you craft your dialogue, ask yourself:
- How have I allowed the setting to impose itself on the characters?
- Can the reader tell where the characters are during the conversation?
Every bit of dialogue in a story should take place somewhere, just as every conversation in the real world takes place somewhere.
Before you begin your scene, try jotting notes about what kinds of things are true of the setting. For instance:
- A school bus is noisy, bumpy, and the space is tight.
- A park can be noisy or quiet depending on time of day and popularity of the park. Space in a park is wide so distance may be an issue.
- In an overgrown, haunted house lot, you have the addition of potential physical danger and the likelihood that the characters aren't actually supposed to be there.
So think about these things as you craft your scenes and your dialogue will be more interesting and more believable.
As an exercise, try putting Daniel and Arie somewhere and let them have their conversation ending in Daniel's admission. How might the dialogue change if you set it in a school lunchroom? The library? The playground during kickball? Arie's front porch?
Without the burden of needing to take these characters somewhere beyond this one snippet of conversation, you may find this exercise unlocks new creativity in your setting and dialogue mix. At the end of your practice, count the number of places you allowed the setting to affect the dialogue. Then pull out your most recent work in progress and look at some of your scenes. How many times do you allow the setting to influence the dialogue? How could you take it even further?
You never know until you try. Have fun with it. You'll be glad you did.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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