WriterDrome: That’s What She Said

WriterDrome is a monthly ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror, Speculative, Dark Fantastic, and Noir Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish these genres in a continuously changing landscape. Remember, opinions mentioned here are just that, opinions. I’m no expert, but I’ve been writing for a long time, and I feel there is a lot I can pass on to my fellow writers. Lively discussion is highly encouraged. 

WriterDrome: That’s What She Said: Dialogue Part I

Ask any beginning writer why have dialogue in a story and they’ll tell you that dialogue is how characters give one another information. The fallacy in this line of thinking is that dialogue, communication, is how real people give one another information. The characters in our stories are not real people. Our characters are only as real as is needed for the story, which is the very tip of the iceberg of what a real person is.

So if our characters are not real people, then why do they speak to each other?

Our character’s dialogue serves one purpose only: To advance the plot.

So how do we use dialogue to advance the plot of our story?

One day I’ll cover the plot in more detail, but for this essay, here’s the basics. You should NEVER plot like this:

Plot Point A, and then Plot Point B, and then Plot Point C, and then, etc.

PLOT LIKE THIS:

Plot Point A, BUT Plot Point B, therefore Plot Point C, BUT, etc.

Our character’s dialogue follows in this fashion as well. It is how dialogue advances the plot. This means that the words your characters say to one another must be significant. Every word counts, even the words you leave off the page.

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

“I don’t know.”

Taken out of context, this exchange, though crude, appears to have all the mechanisms to make it work in a story. But if our goal is advancing the plot with dialogue, then all we’ve really done is set ourselves up for another exchange. We are delaying the scene. Granted, there are times when this may be necessary, but let’s say that this is not one of those times. Let’s say this is one of those times when the tension is high. One character is wondering if the other is turning against him. He wants to know why he failed to tape a gun under a desk. “I don’t know.” is only delaying the confrontation, and you, the writer, badly need a confrontation.

Remember, you don’t need an ‘and then’, you need a ‘BUT’, a ‘therefore’. If all your writing is ‘and then’ dialogue situations, then your dialogue isn’t going anywhere, and it’s certainly not advancing the plot.

Remember: Never ‘and then’. Always ‘BUT’, always ‘therefore’.

The “I don’t know.” sentence in the dialogue example above is an ‘and then’ statement.

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

“I did tape the gun under the desk.”

BAM! See how it works? Like I said, this is a crude example, but the dynamics are there. Instead of a delay, now you’re advancing the plot. You could have written a dozen different statements there, all affecting the outcome a dozen different ways. The novice writer would have went for the the delay because that’s how the scene played out in his head. The character might have not wanted to say anything out of fear, or because he’s playing the other side of the deal, whatever. But that scene the writer played out in his head is how ‘real people’ would have done it. Remember, our characters are not real people, so their dialogue isn’t real, and the words they say to one another are only used to advance the plot.

Okay, okay…so you want a little hesitation. No problem, just add a Physical Tag. (More on Physical Tags in Part II next month.)

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

Johnson squirmed in the leather seat. “I got scared, okay. Scared out of my mind.”

Not as strong as the previous fix, but it’s not an ‘and then’ statement, so we are advancing the plot with an obstacle that must be overcome.

Sometimes it’s not the words you say, but how you say them.

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

“I taped the gun under the damn desk just like you told me, okay.”

Notice the last sentence is a statement, not a question. This is important because we are mimicking real speech. When you read this sentence and your mind doesn’t see the ‘?’ at the end, the brain doesn’t hear the natural voice inflection at the end like we hear when someone asks us a question. By making the last word a little higher in pitch, we force the listener to make note that we’ve asked them a question.

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

“I taped the gun under the damn desk just like you told me, okay?”

In this exchange, the reader hears the higher pitch in the last word, and instantly doesn’t believe the character. Add the squirming in the chair bit, and I won’t believe a word that character says again until he’s proven trustworthy later on, if that happens at all.

Sometimes, it’s not the words we say, or how we say them, but the words we don’t say.

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

Johnson turned his head and stared out the window, jaw muscles grinding.

The silence is golden here, because we, as well as the other character, know that Johnson screwed up. The exchange doesn’t end in an ‘And then’ but with a ‘BUT’, which is how we want the exchange to end.

If your plot is nothing but a long string of ‘and then’ situations, then your dialogue will be the same. And then the words your characters say to one another will be flat and lifeless. As writers, flat, lifeless dialogue is the kiss of death, so make the words your characters say to one another significant. When the words they say are significant, then you are advancing the plot, and the reader, to the finish line words: The End.


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