Dialogue: Make or Break
Writing dialogue can be one of the most challenging aspects of crafting a story, but it’s essential to get it right. And if you struggle with this, you’re not alone. Many writers do, and some will even avoid it at various spots in a manuscript, opting instead for telling, supplying descriptions of an exchange.
Without effective dialogue, a story can fall apart at the seams. No matter how good the surrounding narrative and plot are, having lousy dialogue is a sure way to lose a reader.
But dialogue doesn’t have to be the enemy. It can actually be one of the most effective weapons in a writer’s arsenal. It’s a great way to drop the reader right into the action with fast moving sequences.
I use dialogue to accomplish three main objectives in my stories: move the plot, character development and escalating tension.
MOVE THE PLOT
No matter what genre you write in, moving the plot is essential to keeping your reader invested in a story. Nearly all dialogue should move a plot forward. If it’s not, and it’s not illuminating something important about one of the characters, it probably doesn’t belong.
Dialogue allows us to introduce conflict between characters, or resolve it. It replaces the need for lengthy explanations that detract from the story.
To find out if a dialogue sequence is effective, ask yourself one simple question. Do I know more about the plot than I did before? If the answer is no, you should strongly consider removing or revising it.
Dialogue is indispensable for character development. It can provide back story in chunks, provide insight into a character’s motivations and beliefs, or show if they are being duplicitous or genuine in their dealings with multiple characters. It helps a reader pick up on the nuances of your characters. And sometimes, what your characters don’t say can be just as important as what they do say. And don’t underestimate a reader’s ability to make inferences from the breadcrumb clues you leave in your dialogue. You can use this to slowly drive your reader toward something you want to reveal, or to lead them astray intentionally. One last point on character development, make sure you know your characters inside and out. A good test for this is, if you take away who a quote is attributed to, would you still know the character that’s saying it? Not in all cases, but in many, you should be able to make that inference.
Dialogue is a great way to introduce conflict and escalate tension. If your characters have diametrically opposed motivations and viewpoints, have them have a heated argument. It’s a great way to amplify tension and reveal what your characters are up to without spelling it out for the reader. I use this method frequently to keep a reader engaged.
To illustrate these three points, here’s a narrative excerpt versus a dialogue exchange, both conveying relatively the same information.
Tony turned to drugs to battle the deep shame he felt after his father molested him. His struggles with addiction led him to St Joseph’s. Here, and only here, with Father Ryan, had he learned to feel safe again. Though the calling tugged at his insides every day, begging him back to the streets for another hit. He was one bad batch away from a grave.
“Tony!” Father Ryan shouted. “Where are you going?”
“No where, Father,” he muttered, casting his eyes to the floor and removing his hand from the door latch.
“You know curfew. It’s for a reason, Tony. A recovering addict has no purpose outside of St. Joseph’s this time of—“
“I can’t do it anymore, father!” A tear steaks Tony’s cheeks and his body trembles. “I need it to deal with it. What my…what my dad did to me.” His lip quivers and he sobs. “I can’t live like this.”
“You might not live at all if you walk out that door. You’re a bad batch away from being in the morgue. What your dad did to you wasn’t your fault, Tony. Don’t let the sins of your father destroy you. These last two months, I think we’ve built a level of trust, yes?” Tony nods, flashing wounded eyes. “So trust me. I’m begging you. It gets easier. It’s why you’ve come here. To get clean. Don’t throw everything away now.”
I think the dialogue exchange above accomplishes, moving the plot, character development and escalating tension. But it also sheds light on Tony’s relationship with Father Ryan, as well as giving a glimpse into Tony’s internal conflict. It’s also much more engaging for a reader than its narrative counterpart.
Dialogue does and will continue to play a pivotal role in my stories. I love how it can lift characters off the page, and how versatile it is. It acts like a utility player in baseball. It can play multiple positions effectively, and if used wisely, can solve multiple issues for you in a manuscript.