6 Ways You Can Use Dialogue in Your Story

6 Ways You Can Use Dialogue in Your StoryDialogue is one of the hardest-working components in fiction—but only if you take full advantage of it.

It’s easy enough to make your characters talk to each other and even relatively easy enough to make what they say interesting to readers. But if interesting is the only burden your dialogue is carrying, it’s not doing its fair share.

So just what is dialogue really capable of? One of the best places to study this subject is your local movie theater. Because movies don’t have the option of utilizing narrative (except for the occasional subtitle or voiceover), they’re forced to rely on dialogue to convey the bulk of information.

6 Things Good Dialogue Can Accomplish in Your Story

Following are 6 different ways you can make your dialogue multitask its way to a better story.

1. Good Dialogue Can… Introduce Characters

Pay attention to the early scenes in most movies, and you’ll notice characters inevitably call each other by name. How else would the viewer learn who was who?

Example From The Great Escape:

John Sturges’s classic World War II movie (1963) has the difficult task of introducing a huge cast of characters all within the space of the opening sequence. In just the few beginning scenes, the dialogue includes the names of fourteen characters, some of them repeated to make sure viewers understand who is who.

Great Escape

>>Click here to read the full structural analysis of The Great Escape.

2. Good Dialogue Can… Introduce Settings

One suburban house/desert/prison/ship looks pretty much like another. So how are readers to know where your characters are? Some movies and books accomplish this with a brief subtitle at the bottom of the opening screen (e.g., Chicago, 1919), but most utilize dialogue.

Example From Batman Begins:

The opening shot in Christopher Nolan’s 2005 movie shows a girl chasing a boy across a garden after he’s grabbed an arrowhead from her hand. Thanks to the few lines of dialogue, we know exactly where these characters are:

The girl says, “Finders keepers, and I found it.”

And the boy responds, “In my garden.”

batman begins young bruce and rache;l

>>Click here to read the full structural analysis of Batman Begins.

3. Good Dialogue Can… Convey a Character’s Background

How a character’s speech is shaped—both his accent and his word choices—gives the author an immediately powerful opportunity to tell readers something about the character.

Example From Oliver!:

Carol Reed’s 1968 Oscar-winning musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist leaves no room for doubt about the Artful Dodger’s seedy background, thanks to his opening line of dialogue:

“What you starin’ at? Ain’t you never seen a toff?”

Oliver Artful Dodger

4. Good Dialogue Can… Show a Character’s Emotional Landscape

Fiction writers could easily spend pages upon pages explaining what their characters may be thinking or feeling at any moment. But skillful dialogue allows you to show these things—and usually in much less space.

Example From The Last of the Mohicans:

This lush historical movie (directed by Michael Mann, 1992) leaves no room for doubt about the main characters’ feelings for each other, thanks to two short lines of dialogue:

“What are you looking at, sir?”

“I’m looking at you, miss.”

Last of the Mohicans Madeleine Stowe

5. Good Dialogue Can… Reveal Backstory

Backstory works best when it isn’t allowed to take over the main story. Flashbacks are fine and well, but dialogue can often impart the same amount of info in significantly fewer words.

Example From Star Wars: A New Hope:

Obi-Wan Kenobi sums up Darth Vader’s history (which, thirty years later, would take director George Lucas three more movies to illustrate) in a few simple lines:

“A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all but extinct. Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi Alec Guinness

>>Click here for the full structural analysis of Star Wars: A New Hope.

6. Good Dialogue Can… Impart Necessary Information

Writers are always warned against info dumping, but sometimes you will have large chunks of information you simply must explain to your reader if they’re to have any chance of understanding the story. Used correctly (and always avoiding the “as you already know, Bob” pitfall of explaining things to characters who already understand the information), dialogue comes in handy.

Example From Jurassic Park:

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster had the ginormous task of explaining how to clone a dinosaur in a way viewers would understand and accept, without boring them out of their seats. He managed to cleverly weave the necessary info throughout the movie’s dialogue without resorting to the pages of explanation required in the original novel by Michael Crichton.

Jeff Goldblum Ian Malcolm Jurassic Park

Dialogue is too valuable a commodity to neglect. These are just a few ways you can make sure it’s pulling its weight in your stories.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your favorite part about writing dialogue? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Nice post.

    It’s sad how a lot of people tend to neglect dialogue.

    I find that it’s one of the best ways to show who the character is without a narrative.

    I must say that I don’t like the whole backstory through dialogue thing – unless it is drawn out of a character over many pages.

    It’s all about subtlety to me.

    🙂

  2. Useful as always!

    It’s always annoying to see someone abuse dialogue (like with infodumps) or not use it to its full potential. Thanks for the in-depth examples 🙂

  3. Excellent advice!

  4. Agatha Christie was a master at using dialogue to convey important information – but the thing is, she did it in such a way that you didn’t realize it! After you finish one of her mysteries, if you go back and re-read it you’ll see the clues right in plain sight in the dialogue. John Curran says in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks that every conversation in her books has a point, even when it seems to be about something completely insignificant.

  5. Great post, great examples. The biggest pitfall I see with dialogue is the “info dumping.” One early John Wayne movie began with a young man and an older man talking about how the older man rescued the younger man after the Indians scalped his parents–a story that both characters obviously knew and wouldn’t be telling to each other, but that the viewers needed. It was corny and fake to me.

  6. Thanks for the post.

    Other things dialogue can do is describe another character physically and reveal a character’s like or dislike for another.

    Jurassic Park was a great example of using dialogue to convey information, especially when a character interacted with the film that formed part of a park ride.

  7. Excellent post, and as always, useful info.

    I like the way you used examples to make your point.

  8. My main problem is that my characters like to argue a lot without adding anything to the story.

  9. Dialogue is a great way to “show” instead of “tell”. Thanks for this reminder. I love the fact that writing allows me not feel guilty when I take movie-breaks. =)

    I wrote a post on dialogue a few months ago if you’d like to check it out: http://christiswrite.blogspot.com/2010/04/creating-heart-grabbing-dialogue.html

    God bless!

    Tessa
    http://www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

  10. @Misha: Good fiction *is* all about subtlety. If a novelist can master that, he’s more than halfway to mastering the craft.

    @Jenn: You often find misused dialogue on readers’ lists of pet peeves, mostly because *everyone* knows how speech rhythms should sound. It’s a hard one to fake.

    @Lydia: Thanks for commenting!

    @Elisabeth: That’s the mark of a novelist who knows what she’s doing. Everything, even the most mundane details, have a purpose.

    @Koala: “As you already know, Bob” dialogue is actually one of the easiest pitfalls to avoid, since it’s easy to simply transfer the dialogue to a quick paragraph of narrative.

    @Bonnie: Another trick Jurassic Park utilized well was a little spicing of humor to keep the info interesting even after multiple viewings.

    @Lorna: Digging up movie examples is always fun for a movie buff like me!

    @Galadriel: Nothing wrong with a little witty banter, especially if it exemplifies characterization.

    @Christ is Write: Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out right now.

  11. Now I have more movies to watch. Great post. As always.

  12. And they’re all good ones too! Hope you find something to enjoy.

  13. Learned soo many new things, and have developed a list of movies to watch for research.

  14. I spent forty-five years as a trained, professional film and TV actor before I started writing novels (wrote the first of 21, so far, at age 69). I feel I had a big leg up being an actor because I always think dialogue first and short dialogue at that…Gene Hackman told me once when we were filming ‘Uncommon Valor’, “Kenny, don’t say anymore than you have to or you’ll lose your audience.”
    I roughly calculated recently that my novels run 70 to 75% dialogue and the rest action lines and narration. I write somewhat movie style and write what the characters say to one another and what the camera would have seen if it were a movie. See, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Let the characters suck the reader into the story with dialogue.
    I find it a shame that so few writers actually know how to write believable dialogue.

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