Dialogue is one of the most powerful tool you have as a writer. It is effective and versatile. In this blog I explore three areas of the craft that can benefit from excellent dialogue. Those three areas are:
- Presenting and developing your characters
- Building tension
- Energising your storyline
- Using dialogue to develop your characters
Dialogue has the powerful advantage of being able to show aspects of character without the writer having to spell it out for the reader. To show character in this way will always have a more powerful effect on your reader than simply telling the writer what a character is like.
Consider this example of a short piece of dialogue. A conversation between a daughter and her father:
“I don’t know what your mothers going to think,” said Dad, wiping his hands on the tea towel.
“Mum’s going to have to lump it,” said Maria, “I’m going to the concert with Xavier, and that’s the end of it. If you want to spend the rest of your life creeping around mum, that’s up to you, but I’m not.”
“But Maria, it’s her birthday that day; you know she likes to have her family around her.”
“She likes the world to revolve around her, but it doesn’t.”
“Yes, but …”
“Don’t you get it? I’ve had enough; I’m nineteen and I’m going to live my own life.”
“You’re as stubborn as your mother, I can see where you get it from!”
Notice that there’s no description of either character in this exchange, we are not told anything about the characters of the people involved. But we can learn a lot about them from the interaction. So for example we learn that the daughter, Maria, is a bit rebellious, determined, and is angry with her mother. We learn that her dad wants to keep the peace, but he’ caught between two strong female characters, his wife and his daughter.
Dialogue is the window onto the characters you are creating. As the writer you need to know your characters so well that when they start talking your readers will quickly get to know them too.
- Using dialogue to build tension
Tension, like character is best developed by being shown rather than told to the reader.
Consider this very simple piece of dialogue:
“Just have a seat Alan, please,” said John
“Can you just sit down?”
“I can talk standing, thank you.”
There are just twenty words in this exchange, but it’s enough for us to see the tension between these two characters. The reader won’t know why this tension exists, but hopefully they will be intrigued enough to stick around and find out what’s going on. From here the writer can begin to explore the reasons behind this tension, using dialogue to raise the tension even further, or maybe bring these characters to reconciliation.
- Using dialogue to energise and develop your storyline.
There are plenty of ways to use dialogue to move your story on, or to energise the storyline. this, here are a couple more quick examples. Suppose you want to introduce some bad news into the story. Your characters can do this for you without you having to use any exposition at all. Consider this example.
“Hi Jasmine, how you doing?”
“You haven’t heard then?”
“Oh, look come and sit down a minute.”
And then the news can be shared.
Or, you might want to use dialogue to build up to a significant reveal, either about the plot or the characters. Consider this example. Jolene’s mother has just passed away at a care home, she is speaking to Michael, one of the staff who cared for her.
“That’s all her personal belongings,” said Michael.
“I want to thank you, for everything you did for mum,” she said.
“Looking after mum like this in her final months, I mean, I know it’s what you do here and all that, but she really did appreciate how much you were there for her.”
“It was the right thing to do,” he said, looking down at his shoes.
“I know, but all the same,”
“No,” he said, “I mean really, it was the right thing for me to do. I couldn’t have done anything else.”
“Sure,” said Jolene, “it’s good that you are there for the residents.”
“Look,” said Michael, “have you got time for a cup of tea? There’s something I need to tell you.”
And in this short conversation we detect that there might have been something more in the relationship between Michael and the old lady beyond what we’ve seen so far.
And at this stage it doesn’t matter what that relationship is, what matters is that if I have piqued the readers interest, and they carry on reading, then I have succeeded in my objective. What the dialogue has done is set up the next development in the plot, alerting and attracting the reader to be ready for whatever revelation Michael will come out with.
So, dialogue is a powerful example of the old maxim that it is better to show than tell. I hope these examples have shown you how dialogue is especially powerful in this respect, and can be used to develop character, build tension, and energise your storyline.
© 2015 Andrew J Chamberlain
Andrew J Chamberlain is a writer, speaker, and creative writing tutor. He is the presenter of The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt a podcast that offers practical, accessible advice on the craft. Andrew has worked on a number of ghost-writing collaborations for Authentic Media, including the bestselling ‘Once an Addict’ with Barry Woodward. He has also self-published a number of science fiction short stories. Andrew will be speaking at the First Page Writing Course this November in Cumbria, England.