Using Dialogue in Scenes to Reveal Character

Dialogue is perhaps the best tool in the writer’s toolbox. Through it, novelists can reveal things about reputation and planned, set up and amplify conflict and stakes, develop mystery and microtension, and so much more–and this is why it deserves a lot of attention.

Yes, talk ever suffices more than one purpose–more than purely giving info. Fiction columnists should want to learn skills and methods to help them backpack dialogue with so much better punch as possible.

Dialogue is also extremely difficult to do well. It ought to have compressed and distilled to be effective. Great dialogue in myth is hardly realistic or precise; it infers more than it territory. In center, it’s stylized for effect.

That’s why you can’t merely listen to people’s communications and reproduce them down verbatim and use them in your backgrounds. Much of exchange is digesting, repetitive, wandering, and full of irrelevant oaths that clutter.

Use Dialogue to Reveal Character

What I want to talk about for a bit is the way dialogue can supersede persona show and create an impression without the narrative “telling” that is so often denigrated( and usually for good reason ).

When we both listen and watch someone speak, we pick up a lot of information that is inferred by the listener. With reputations , is not simply can other courages generalize and react to what the speaker is saying and what their body language is conveying( those can be and are often two wildly different things ), the book infers as well.

Depending on what the author shows us as the characters are speaking, we form an image of their temperaments, attitudes, humors, desires, motives, and secrets.

Some stories are more than 90% dialogue. I imagine there are still tales written that are close to 100%( rejecting the discussion tags and periodic parts of sentiment and body language ).

Dialogue is action. It’s “show, don’t tell.” It starts the story in media res. It causes whodunit and microtension. That’s why a great deal of novels open with not just a few directions but nearly an entire scene of dialogue.

But there are dangers to avoid when starting with dialogue. You don’t want to wait too long to set the stage–show where the characters are and who else is there and what all they’re doing. However, you can get away with teasing out these questions if the dialogue is discovering character and setting up some of the proposition elements.

And you have to be careful not to have endless rapid-fire threads of communication( unless that’s the effect you’re going for–and you can see some excellent suddenly moments of that in the scene below ). It’s important to add bits of narrative, helpful acts, gesticulates, and expressions that all add to forming that essential picture of the characters.

Last thing you demand is talking heads moving in air, doing nothing while talking, existing in the void of space( be sure to read this post on THAD–Talking Foremen Avoidance Device ).

Here is the opening scene from one of my favorite fictions, The God Hater, by Bill Myers. A heap of commercial-grade story begins with dialogue( like another of my faves: Lexicon by Max Barry ). And, done well, it coats glowing pictures of courages without having to give that dreaded “laundry list” of descriptors( fuzz and seeing color, improve, garment, etc .).

This scene feels as if in omniscient POV–at very least it’s a distanced POV, causing the feel of a camera nose watching this play out. However, Myers does make some slight autonomies in the way he describes some things that feel more like someone’s POV rather than a separated narrator( see if you can spot those words and words ):

Samuel Preston, a neighbourhood reporter with bronzed bark and glow-in-the-dark teeth, turned to one of the patrons of his TV reveal God Talk. “So what’s your take over all of this, Dr. Mackenzie? ”

The sixty-something professor gazed silently at his wristwatch. He had unruly grey whisker and wore an outdated sports coat.

“Dr. Mackenzie? ”

He gazed up, disoriented, then turned to the host, who recurred the question. “What are your feelings about the book? ”

Clearing his throat, Mackenzie parent the watch to his ear and uttered it a shake. “I was wondering … ” He trailed off, his shaggy-haired eyebrows gathered into a grimace as he listened for a sound.

The second patron, a middle-aged pastor with a shirt collar more sizes too small, smiled. “Yes? ”

Mackenzie gave up on the watch and turning now to him. “Do you even off this idiocy as you go along? Or do you simply parrot others who have equally stunted intellects? ”

The pastor, Dr. William Hathaway, blinked. Still smiling, he turned to the host. “I was under the impression we were going to discuss my brand-new diary? ”

“Oh, we are, ” Preston assured him. “But it’s ever good to have a skeptic or two in our midst, wouldn’t you agree? ”

“Ah.” Hathaway nodded. “Of course.” He turned away to Mackenzie, his smile never wavering. “I am afraid what you term as’ drivel’ is based upon a religion elongating back thousands of years.”

Mackenzie removed one or two dog whiskers from his slacks. “We have fossilized dinosaur feces older than that.”

“I’m sorry? ”

“Just because something’s aged doesn’t stop it from being crap.”

Dr. Hathaway’s smile twitched. He turned in his chair to more perfectly address the man. “We’re says something about a time-honored religion that millions of–”

“And that’s supposed to be a plus, ” Mackenzie said, “that’s it’s religious? I thought you wanted to support your nonsense.”

“I see. Well, there is an opportunity interest you to know that–”

“Actually, it doesn’t interest me at all.” The old man turned to Preston. “How much longer will we be? ”

The host chuckled. “Just a few more hours, Professor.”

Working harder to maintain his smile, Hathaway replied, “So, if I understand correctly, you’re not a big fan of the benefits of Christianity? ”

“Benefits? ” Mackenzie plucked a abused hankie from his pocket and began looking for an unsoiled fraction. “Is that what the thirty thousand Jews who were tortured and killed during the Inquisition called it? Benefits? ”

“That’s not entirely fair.”

“And why is that? ”

“For starters, most of them weren’t Jews.”

“I’m sure they’re once feeling better.”

“What I am saying is–”

“What are you saying, Mr . … Mr.–”

“Actually, it’s Doctor.”

“Actually, you’re a liar.”

“I beg your pardon? ”

Finding an unused province of his handkerchief, Mackenzie took off his glasses and scavenged them.

The pastor continued, “It may interest you to know that–”

“We’ve already established my lack of interest.”

“It may interest you to know that I hamper several honorary doctorates.”

“Honorary doctorates.”

“That’s correct.”

“Honorary, as in unearned, as in good for nothing … unless it’s to line the bottom of birdcages.” He accommodated his glasses to the light, checking for any remaining smudges.

Hathaway made a gulp and regrouped. “You can disparage my persona all you wish, but there is no refuting the benefits outlined in my brand-new book.”

“Ah, yes, the benefits.” Mackenzie lowered his glass and worked on the other lends. “Like the million-plus lives slaughtered during the Crusades? ”

“That figure can be disputed.”

“Correct. It may be higher.”

Hathaway shifted in his sear. “The Crusades were a long time ago and in an entirely different culture.”

“So you’d prefer something closer to home? Perhaps the witch hunts of New England? ”

“I’m not here to–”

“Fifteen thousand human beings slaughtered in Europe and America. Fifteen thousand.”

“Again, that’s history and not an integrated part of today’s–”

“Then let us discuss more recent atrocities–toward the blackness, the gays, the Muslim population. Perhaps a exchange on the bombing of abortion clinics? ”

“Please, if you would allow me–”

Mackenzie turned to Preston. “Are we finished here? ”

Fighting to be heard, Hathaway continued, “If people will speak my journal, they will clearly see–”

“Are we finished? ”

“Yes, Professor.” Preston laughter. “I believe we are.”

“But we’ve not discussed my Seven Steps to Successful–”

“Perhaps another time, Doctor.”

Mackenzie rose, shielding his eyes from the bright studio lighters as Hathaway continued. “But there are many issues we need to–”

“I’m sure there are, ” Preston agreed while keeping an eye on Mackenzie, who stepped from the platform and leader off camera. “And I’m sure it’s all there in your volume. Sever Steps to–”


Annie Brooks sounded off the remote to her television.

( I included the representation breaking and first wire of the next incident was why the first incident boundaries like that .)

You may have noticed there is very little action to tell us the attitude or feelings of the characters. Most of that is revealed by what is said–the wording and statements of the speech. Mackenzie’s cleaning of his glasses reveals his wearines or perhaps a deliberate substantiate of oversight or disrespect toward the pastor. Preston, the talk see legion, does little more than chuckle, but that speaks volumes about his role on the show.

We get a strong, clear picture of Hathaway, the pastor, fumbling to defend his religion and find an ingress to promote his new book, which seems to be what he’s most concerned about.

And we have no trouble sizing up the opinionated Mackenzie, with this scene setting up his reference as the “God hater” of this story, his opinions and attitudes toward religion crucial to bring out at the start for the plan that is about to play out.

Each character is only briefly described by a convict or two–just enough to help books video them. There is little setting–only color flames, a caused platform, and( presumed) cameras and crew in some chronicle studio. Myers didn’t feel it necessary to describe the designating, trusting his readers would fill in the spaces, as no doubt most have pictured talk prove stages.

What he missed in this opening scene was to set up his primary person, Mackenzie, an self-opinionated, vociferous atheist and critic of religion–because it’s his dazzling transformation that sits at the heart of this story.

Dialogue is a writer’s power tool. If you learn how to wield it well, it will achieve much for you. Take the time to study great exchange and tradition emulating the mode of masterful columnists in your genre, for exchange will impel or smash your fiction.

Featured Photo by Sam Farallon on Unsplash

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