As I mentioned, dialogue has many functions in writing fiction. I have come up with five different functions (you may think of more):
- Reveal Character. Your novel or short story’s characters need to be multidimensional. One way is to use dialogue is to give your characters a distinctive way of talking. Perhaps they have a favorite phrase they continually use, maybe they stutter when under stress, perhaps they speak with a high degree of formality, or if your character’s second language is English he may speak it haltingly by omitting articles and butchering stock phrases. By giving a character a specific way of speaking you can make them distinctive and more interesting.
- Advance the Plot. This is probably the most common use of dialogue. As your characters talk to each other they reveal more about themselves and the story you write. But, there’s a way to do this without making dialogue happen just to reveal information. First of all, avoid the “as you know” conversation. In this one the first character says to the other, “As you know, John, the diamond was pawned yesterday.” If John already knows this, why would the first character have to tell him? Another error is information dump. In this scenario one character spews volumes of information in order to advance the plot. This generally sounds artificial and contrived. In my next blog post I’ll address info dump and “as you know” dialogue in depth.
- Create conflict. In his book Story Engineering, author Larry Brooks states that, among other things, “Story is conflict.” Conflict is important to your story. And, one way to create conflict is through dialogue. For example, here is a conversation between two friends:
“Don’t you ‘hey’ me you son of a bitch. Martha told me everything.”
“The late night meetings. The lunch time trysts in the local motel.”
“Wait, Jack, it’s not like that.”
“Having an affair with my wife is not like what?”
This sounds interesting. You likely want to hear more and learn why Ralph and Martha are having the affair.
- Hook the Reader. It is important to hook your reader in the opening chapter of your novel or opening paragraphs of your short story. Using good dialogue at the opening of your story can help draw you reader in and make her want to continue to turn pages. Here’s an example of opening dialogue from the 1957 Swedish movie, The Seventh Seal:
“I am Death.”
“Are you coming for me?”
“I’ve already waked by your side for quite some time.”
“Are you ready?”
“My body is ready, but I’m not.”
This certainly sounds intriguing and if you don’t mind subtitles you’d probably continue watching until the closing credits.
- Show Emotions. Along with appropriate description good dialogue can help convey emotion. But, be careful. Don’t use those atrocious attributions to do this. You know, the “he snorted” or “she bellowed”. Let your character’s speech convey his or her emotion.