Key One: Dialogue is Action
Whenever you bring together two or more characters who want different things, you ignite the heat of conflict. And how do these sparring characters interact? Often verbally. That’s dialogue.
Dialogue is a verbal exchange, a give-and-take between characters.
It is action. This action, this conflict-generating verbal exchange we call dialog, is a wonderful catalyst for fiction. In fact, the interplay of conflict and action drives fiction. It works like this: conflict makes the characters act. Their actions reveal who they are better than any description (and that gets the reader involved enough to keep reading). Their actions also lead to new conflicts and even more actions in response, all of which accrue (with a bit of focus) into a plot. It’s like an engine. An action-conflict-action plot-driving machine.
The best test for whether dialogue works is whether it contains action. Something happens–a decision is made, a problem is exposed or solved, some change occurs in the story.
When writing dialog, ask yourself whether the dialogue takes the reader deeper into the story. Has the story changed as a result of the dialogue or does the dialogue reveal a change? No change equals no action. If nothing happens, if there is no dramatic (e.g., plot-moving) action, the dialogue isn’t doing its job. It’s broken.
Dialogue Problems: Telling (a.k.a. Exposition) and Redundancy
If the dialogue and the narrative parts of a scene say the same thing, one of them is unnecessary:
Gerald couldn’t tell if he had enough money for both pieces of candy. When he tried to count the coins, he became flustered. “I’m confused,” he said. “I don’t know how much money this is.”
This is slow and redundant because the narrative part tells (instead of shows) that Gerald is flustered and then the dialogue part repeats the mistake. This is an exceedingly poor fragment of dialog–not only is it redundant and expository, nothing happens.
Gerald looked from the rock candy to the pixie sticks to the three pennies and a nickel in his palm. “Will this buy two pieces?” he asked, holding up the coins for the shopkeeper’s inspection.
Here, Gerald rises to the challenge—there is action in his decision to ask the shopkeeper. It sets up the shopkeeper to respond in any number of ways.
It also shows his character. If Gerald held up the coins and said something else, the reader would have a different impression of the boy and the situation:
“Give me a pixie stick and a rock candy,” he said, thrusting the change at the shopkeeper.
We could expect a different response from the shopkeeper. Here, the dialogue is as much a part of the action as the narrative, and it complements it rather than repeats it. It illustrates Gerald’s character and moves the story along.
Exposition. If a character talks for more than a couple or three lines, he is probably not engaging in a dialog. He is either giving a speech (monologue) or dumping information (exposition) on the reader. Dialogue is action; neither speech-making nor exposition is action. Either one can bring your story to a grinding halt.
When you review dialogue you have written, you should see things happening, problems being addressed or created. If nothing happens, backtrack to where the action stopped. Chances are you have some telling (exposition) in your dialogue where showing would be more appropriate.
It can be as subtle as the first Gerald example or as egregious as page after page of an expert detailing the inner workings of a secret society. You may be in love with these details, but they aren’t action, even when they are dressed up with quotation marks. This is true for technical and historical information, setting and character description, backstory, or any other exposition you may be tempted to dump into the story. Keep the story moving. Try to keep exposition to a minimum and incorporate it as naturally as possible. Reveal details through a character’s perception of story events, not as chunks of exposition masquerading as dialog.
A couple quick tips:
Characters should not tell each other what they already know or what one character conveniently “forgot.” This is a flimsy device to bring the reader up to speed. Believe me, readers see right through it. Beyond that, it will probably have your characters resorting to forced and false dialogue which doesn’t reveal their true characters, dumps exposition on the reader, and contains no action. You are a better writer than that; you can find a more interesting and legitimate way of incorporating what your reader needs to know into the story.
Avoid wasted words such as well, like, you know, and um. Dialogue isn’t exact speech, it’s an approximation designed to convey the sense of a conversation. There is a lot filler in a typical conversation, but you don’t want filler in your story. You want 100% pure story in your story.
Stay tuned…. In the next post we will explore how dialogue reveals character on many different levels at once.