Using Dialogue in Scenes to Reveal Character

Dialogue is perhaps the best tool in the writer’s toolbox. Through it, writers can reveal things about character and plot, set up and amplify conflict and stakes, create mystery and microtension, and so much more—and this is why it merits a lot of attention.

Yes, dialogue always serves more than one purpose—more than merely conveying information. Fiction writers should want to learn skills and methods to help them pack dialogue with as much punch as possible.

Dialogue is also extremely difficult to do well. It has to be condensed and distilled to be effective. Great dialogue in fiction is hardly realistic or exact; it infers more than it states. In essence, it’s stylized for effect.

That’s why you can’t merely listen to people’s conversations and copy them down verbatim and use them in your scenes. Much of conversation is boring, repetitive, rambling, and full of extraneous words that clutter.

Use Dialogue to Reveal Character

What I want to talk about for a bit is the way dialogue can replace character description and create an impression without the narrative “telling” that is so often maligned (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 characters, not only can other characters infer 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 reader infers as well.

Depending on what the author shows us as the characters are speaking, we form a picture of their personalities, attitudes, moods, desires, motivations, and secrets.

Some novels are more than 90% dialogue. I imagine there have been novels written that are close to 100% (discounting the speech tags and occasional bits of positioning and body language).

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

But there are pitfalls 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 revealing character and setting up some of the premise elements.

And you have to be careful not to have endless rapid-fire lines of speech (unless that’s the effect you’re going for—and you can see some excellent short moments of that in the scene below). It’s important to add bits of narrative, useful actions, gestures, and expressions that all add to forming that essential picture of the characters.

Last thing you want is talking heads floating in air, doing nothing while talking, existing in the void of space (be sure to read this post on THAD—Talking Heads Avoidance Device).

Here is the opening scene from one of my favorite novels, The God Hater, by Bill Myers. A lot of commercial fiction begins with dialogue (like another of my faves: Lexicon by Max Barry). And, done well, it paints vivid pictures of characters without having to give that dreaded “laundry list” of descriptors (hair and eye color, build, clothing, etc.).

This scene feels as if in omniscient POV—at very least it’s a distanced POV, giving the feel of a camera eye watching this play out. However, Myers does take some subtle liberties in the way he describes some things that feel more like someone’s POV rather than a detached narrator (see if you can spot those words and phrases):

Samuel Preston, a local reporter with bronzed skin and glow-in-the-dark teeth, turned to one of the guests of his TV show God Talk. “So what’s your take on all of this, Dr. Mackenzie?”

The sixty-something professor stared silently at his wristwatch. He had unruly white hair and wore an outdated sports coat.

“Dr. Mackenzie?”

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

Clearing his throat, Mackenzie raised the watch to his ear and gave it a shake. “I was wondering …” He trailed off, his bushy eyebrows gathered into a scowl as he listened for a sound.

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

Mackenzie gave up on the watch and turned to him. “Do you make up this drivel 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 new book?”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry?”

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

Dr. Hathaway’s smile twitched. He turned in his chair to more fully address the man. “We’re talking 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, it may 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 minutes, 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 pulled a used handkerchief from his pocket and began looking for an unsoiled portion. “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 already 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 area of his handkerchief, Mackenzie took off his glasses and cleaned 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 hold 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 held his glasses to the light, checking for any remaining smudges.

Hathaway took a breath and regrouped. “You can malign my character all you wish, but there is no refuting the benefits outlined in my new book.”

“Ah, yes, the benefits.” Mackenzie lowered his glasses 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 murdered in Europe and America. Fifteen thousand.”

“Again, that’s history and not a part of today’s—”

“Then let us discuss more recent atrocities—toward the blacks, the gays, the Muslim population. Perhaps a dialogue 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 read my book, they will clearly see—”

“Are we finished?”

“Yes, Professor.” Preston chuckled. “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 lights 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 headed off camera. “And I’m sure it’s all there in your book. Sever Steps to—”

***

Annie Brooks clicked off the remote to her television.

(I included the scene break and first line of the next scene to explain why the first scene ends like that.)

You may have noticed there is very little action to tell us the mood or feelings of the characters. Most of that is revealed by what is said—the wording and words of the speech. Mackenzie’s cleaning of his glasses indicates his boredom or perhaps a deliberate show of disregard or disrespect toward the pastor. Preston, the talk show host, 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 faith 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 character as the “God hater” of this story, his opinions and attitudes toward religion crucial to bring out at the start for the plot that is about to play out.

Each character is only briefly described by a sentence or two—just enough to help readers picture them. There is little setting—only bright lights, a raised platform, and (presumed) cameras and crew in some recording studio. Myers didn’t feel it necessary to describe the setting, trusting his readers would fill in the blanks, as no doubt most have seen talk show stages.

What he wanted in this opening scene was to set up his main character, Mackenzie, an opinionated, vociferous atheist and critic of religion—because it’s his spectacular 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 accomplish much for you. Take the time to study great dialogue and practice emulating the style of masterful writers in your genre, for dialogue will make or break your fiction.

Featured Photo by Sam Farallon on Unsplash

One Response to “Using Dialogue in Scenes to Reveal Character”

  1. Robert Billing January 25, 2021 at 9:07 am #

    Another very informative article, thanks. I have to confess that I initially got this badly wrong, producing pages of talking heads. Then it got picked up in critique and I realised that the sense of place was needed as well.

    In this scene I initially had Jane and Eva talking with no description, so there was no sense of place. (This is in a cabin on a big spaceship):

    Later that evening there was a polite tap on Jane’s cabin door.
    ‘Who is it?’
    ‘Eva.’
    ‘Come in, would you like a drink? Coffee?’
    Eva shuffled into the room. Jane took her by the hand and led her to the best of the three chairs. Eva sat, staring out of the curved window, unwilling or unable to meet Jane’s eyes.
    ‘N—Nothing thanks,’ she stammered, and began to fiddle with the hem of her threadbare red skirt.
    ‘Come on,’ said Jane, ‘I don’t bite, at least not people who don’t deserve to be bitten.’
    Eva smiled. ‘Coffee then, if you have some. I don’t see any cups or anything.’
    Jane opened one of the lockers built against the curve of the wall. ‘Force of habit, my ship accelerates a lot harder than the Consort.’ She took out a small filter coffee machine and two plastic tubes. ‘If I left something like this,’ she pulled the jug out of the coffee machine and went to fill it in the bathroom, ‘on the galley worktop, and then opened the throttles, I’d find it in small pieces against the engine room bulkhead. You learn to be tidy in an eighty-footer.’ She poured water into the machine, and plugged it in.
    ‘Now,’ said Jane, as she picked up the tubes, ‘what’s on your mind?’
    ‘Why are you doing this?’
    ‘Doing what?’ Jane broke the end off one of the tubes with a loud pop.
    Eva cowered, and gripped the arm of her chair.

    Adding the big window and three chairs gives a sense of the size of the space, the fact that Jane fills the coffee machine in an en-suite bathroom tells us it is comfortable if not luxurious. Jane has brought her own coffee maker, so that’s one of her priorities.

    Now, am I doing this the right way?

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