Dialogue — can you picture a story without it? Most stories have chapters or scenes without dialogue, and an example of a book without any dialogue from the main characters is the animal story, An Incredible Journey.
So, yes, it can be done and successfully, but dialogue plays an important role in a story. Humans communicate with more than dialogue. Their actions, tone of voice, what they say and how they say it as well as what they don’t say all communicate something about the message they want to convey or perhaps what they are reluctant to say.
One important role of dialogue in a story is that wherever it occurs it should move the story forward. The following excerpt is from my book, Winter’s Icy Caress, and I’ve used it to show an example of how dialogue moves a story forward.
“What are you reading?” Wyatt asked while surveying the contents of the refrigerator. He lifted the half gallon of milk in a mock toast before tipping it back for a drink. She knew he drank from the milk jug because it irritated her. One corner of her mouth turned up.
“There was another abduction. A Chippewa woman. Have you heard anything about this?” She scanned the article for more information.
“No. I don’t think Dave’s involved yet. The local authorities would still oversee the investigation until they decided to bring in the FBI. Do you know either of the women?”
Clare’s forehead furrowed, and she shook her head as she continued to read about the Wind disappearance. “The latest woman’s name is Sara Wind. I wonder if she’s related to Alana.” Wyatt looked over her shoulder at the newspaper photo.
“Not the best photo. I know Alana when I see her, but I’ve never talked to her. Maybe Loretta knows.” Wyatt grabbed a glass from the cupboard and poured the remaining milk into it before stealing a slice of peanut butter toast from Clare’s plate. She slapped his hand. He gave her a saucy grin before taking a big bite of toast.
“I think I’ll ask her when we have dinner tonight.”
In this example you meet two characters — Clare and Wyatt. The dialogue between them moves the reader further into the story as we learn about the disappearances of women in the Bayfield area. We are also introduced to other characters during their conversation: Dave – who is connected to the FBI, Sara Wind – the missing woman, and Loretta – the woman they will have dinner with that evening.
In a few sentences we find out Clare is concerned about the news, wants to know more information about the disappearances and plans on asking her friend that evening. The dialogue moves us into the next scene, but what isn’t said while they are conversing tells us another story about the couple and their relationship.
This next example from Empty Chairs, Empty Promises offers an example of how dialogue can define character. What the character says, the words they use, their tone reveals who they are as well as their relationship to the other character. Dialogue changes dynamics in the story by creating emotional responses to what is being said.
“Mom, I don’t understand you! You sell our family home and now you want to go alone to who knows where…” Carrie argues over the phone with me.
“Puerto Rico. That’s where I’m going,” I correct.
“What are you talking about? Traipsing off in some type of mid-life crisis, it’s ridiculous. I’m embarrassed one of my friends will find out how demented you are!” Carrie isn’t going to let up and frankly, I’m getting tired of the tirade.
“Young lady, I’m your mother, and I won’t have you talking to me like this. I’m not having a mid-life crisis. I’m taking a much-deserved vacation, and I plan on enjoying myself. I’ve got another thirty or forty years ahead of me. I need to decide what I would like to do with it.”
“Whatever. Have fun. Don’t worry about your children, we’ll be fine.” My daughter is filled with resentment and each word drips with venom.
“Carrie, you’re an adult. I’m not abandoning you. You and Nate are always in my thoughts. I’ll get in touch with you when I get there.”
“Well, don’t let it interfere with your fun. I need to go.” And then, she was gone. I sigh at the petulant tone in her voice and shake my head, wondering if I’d been as insufferable when I was her age. No, I had two children to care for when I was her age. I didn’t have time for drama.
In this conversation, you are introduced to Libby Crenshaw, the protagonist of the story and her daughter, Carrie. The conversation moves the story forward by revealing Libby’s plans, gives the reader a glimpse into Carrie’s personality and how she and her mother interact. Through Libby’s inner dialogue, we see that she has made up her mind and will not give in to her daughter’s demands.
Through this passage, the reader may begin to form a connection towards one or the other of the characters, choosing sides and bringing them into the story as they feel the tension build between the two women.
Dialogue serves many purposes within the story structure by providing realism, dramatic tension, and giving voice to the characters as it defines who they are.
It makes the story advance by helping to direct the course of the plot. Characters should experience some type of change after a scene containing dialogue. If it doesn’t cause change it isn’t required to tell the story. It is nothing more than filler and should be deleted.
Dialogue provides information as secrets are revealed and the histories of the characters are divulged. It serves to balance the elements of storytelling by breaking up action sequences and/or descriptive passages.
Keep it natural by giving characters different voices. Let them interrupt each other and give them and non-participants in the scene actions in the background to convey reactions to the conversations. Put them in a specific identifiable location and time during their conversation. Use misdirection, what is unsaid, what is ignored or implied to increase the tension in the scene. Use internal dialogue to communicate those things only the character knows.
Dialogue is a powerful tool for the writer, but it is only effective if it moves the action forward.
OMP Admin Note: Kate McGinn is a writer and OMP Network member – one of a group of networkers who will be blogging on a regular basis on various causes and issues. Kate hopes to spread awareness of the issue of American Veterans returning home to less help than they deserve. EMMAUS is one of the two main charities we are supporting.
Kate McGinn’s fiction can be found on Amazon in the flash fiction series BITE SIZE STORIES (Volume Two) along with five other guest writers, and in the One Million Project Fiction Anthology. Her Clare Thibodeaux Series which include the suspense books — EXODUS, WINTER’S ICY CARESS, and NEVER SHOW YOUR HAND are available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.
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