Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Dialogue: Building Scenes

"Dialogue, as much as anything else, reveals the character to the writer and, ultimately to the reader. I don't have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they start talking." --Joan Didion

How important is dialogue to your WIP? Do you use it at all? Overuse it? Use but sparingly?

More importantly, why do you use it?

Barry Lane says that "it's a general rule to use it, not to give information, but to reveal character...When people speak they reveal themselves. What they fail to say is often as important as what they do say" (After the End 54-55).

I'm reminded, of course, of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants."
Lane references Roland Goodbody's El Dia De Los Muertos (if anyone can find an on-line reference to him or his work, I'd appreciate it).

So this prompted some synapse firing: How do I use dialogue? Is it to develop character? or to develop plot? Does it have to be either/or? What are the arguments for and against each approach? Any thoughts on the matter?


  1. Interesting questions. I use dialogue a LOT now, much more now than in the past. I think I do a better job at revealing plot through dialogue than any other way. For some reason it helps move the scenes along more quickly than describing actions, etc. However, in this new style of writing I realize I need to still balance it with the same tight description I was doing before. It's a struggle sometimes. When I improve in one area, I find out I neglect another. All a learning process, I suppose--which is fine as long as I'm growing.

  2. I use dialogue a lot also. For me, at least, the dialogue brings my writing to life. Heated conversations! Restrained conversations. Everyday conversations. Woo-hoo! I mean, there's only so much you can say with pure exposition. It is sometimes the dialogue that brings the characters vividly to life.

    Sarcasm. Snark. Restraint. Humor. Anger. So many emotions can be conveyed with few or many words.

    So, good, bad, or indifferent, I love dialogue and use it freely in my writing.


  3. Dialog is so important when showing character, but you *have* to make sure it sounds like real people talking. The last thing you want is to have dialog sound forced. It can be used to move the plot forward, but it has to be done with finesse.

    "Wow, is that the murderer over there behind the bush?" Jack asked.

    Not much finesse in that one is there?
    See if this works better.

    "Did you see that?" Jack pointed to his right.

    Bill turned to look.

    "I don't see anything."

    "There's something behind that bush."

    Better, but I'm sure you can tweak it even further.

  4. Mmmmm. I always thought of dialog as an extension of voicing. Both the writer's voice and the character's voice.

    Joss Whedon is a master of voicing. His dialog works because they are extensions of the characters in question, stylistic personification he attributes to each character.

    This voicing mastery is very apparent in the Buffy episode, "Hush", which contained no dialog except at the very beginning and end of the episode.

    So, to answer your question, I feel it is both. Three dimensional characters have dialog, even if they are not saying anything aloud. Plot wise, the spoken word in real life is a mighty catalyst for conflict, just as it is for solving conflict.

  5. I dialogue as much as possible when there are two characters present. When I'm writing dialogue, I try to think about what's important to each character and let them have their say, rather than writing dialogue just to further the plot. I find they say some interesting things that way.

  6. Good question. I think I use dialogue for both story info and character development at the same time.


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