Sunday, 12 July 2015

Bring your story to LIFE. Part 1 - The Power of Dialogue By Andrew J Chamberlain

I’ve just recorded an interview with the writer and speaker, Nick Page. Nick has written over sixty books and he has a wonderful talent for making scenes and characters from bible come alive.
My conversation with Nick reminded me of some of the techniques that we can use to show rather than tell in our work as writers, and in the process to capture and enthrall our readers.
So over the next few months I’ll be sharing my tips for bringing your work alive in this way. I will focus on five areas, showing, with examples, how they can work individually or together.
Those five areas are:

1. Sprinkle your work with dialogue

2.  Use the senses (what are your characters seeing,  hearing, smelling, tasting and touching)

3.  Imply, hint, suggest
4. Use sparse and specific description

5. Include some humour

This blog focuses on dialogue. 

Dialogue reveals character and relationship.

Dialogue is a powerful tool for presenting the characters in your story to your readers, without simply telling them who these people are.  Consider this example:

“Oh I don’t know what your mothers going to think,” said Dad, wiping his hands on the tea towel.
“Mum’s going to have to lump it,” said Sally, “I’m going to the concert with Phil, and that’s the end of it. If you want to spend the rest of your life creeping around her, worried about what she’s going to say or think, good luck to you, but I’m not.”
“But Sally, it’s her birthday that day; you know she likes to have her family around her.”
“She likes the world to revolve around her, but it doesn’t.”
“Yes, but Sally…”
“Don’t you get it dad? I’m going to live my own life.”
“Oh, you’re as stubborn as your mother!”

What does the reader conclude from this short passage?

We deduce that Sally is an independent-minded daughter. She is a bit rebellious, quite determined, and maybe angry. Meanwhile her father is a gentler character, he is nervous, maybe a bit henpecked, and probably wants to just keep the peace. He is caught between a strong mother and her equally strong daughter. Meanwhile, the conversation also tells us something about Sally’s mother, her personality, and her views on family. Maybe she is something of a matriarch.
Notice that the reader can conclude all of these things without any of them being said. It’s all implied in the dialogue.

Dialogue and tension

As the previous example implies, dialogue can also be used to build tension. Consider this short exchange:

 “Just have a seat Alan, please,” said John
“Can you just sit down?”
“I can talk standing up, thank you.”

It’s clear here that Alan is in the mood for a confrontation. We don’t need to be told it, we can see it. John wants to try to be calm about it, and he wants to sort the situation out. Will he be able to do this?
As the writer you are hoping that the reader will be interested enough to want to find out what the problem is, and whether it will be resolved. Whether or not the reader sticks around to find this out will depend in part on how effectively you have been able to conjure up these characters in the reader’s mind, how much the reader cares about them. Dialogue can help you achieve these objectives.

Dialogue and plot

There are plenty of ways to use dialogue to drive your plot forward. Suppose you want to introduce some bad news into the story. You want to make the introduction of this news as dramatic as possible, you need to build the tension between characters to do this. One way to achieve this is through dialogue. Consider this example.

“Hi Sally,” said Mark, “how you doing?”
“You haven’t heard then?”
“Heard what?”

And immediately, you have alerted the reader that something significant is about to be said.
All of these examples rely on your characters showing a feature of personality, or a tension, or mood, rather than telling it outright. To help you do this in dialogue, make sure that your characters imply meaning rather than say things outright. You can use what Sol Stein in his excellent book “Solutions for writers” calls oblique dialogue. This is dialogue where the speakers don’t address directly the points each other are making, but rather they give an indirect answer that is in line with what is being discussed, and implies as much as it says.

Consider these examples:

A man crosses the room at a party to speak to an attractive woman:
“I’ve been watching you for the past five minutes,” he said.
“Why have you been watching me?” she said.
“Because I find you attractive.”
“Why do you find me attractive?”
“You have a pleasant looking face.”

This is turning in to a dull conversation. The people involved in it are asking and answering questions directly; there’s no intrigue, there’s no tension there’s nothing for the reader to guess at, infer, or work on.

Compare it to this. Exactly the same scene, and it starts in the same way.

“I’ve been watching you for the past five minutes,” he said.
“You think I’m going to steal the silver or something?”
“It’s pretty hot in here. Shall we take a stroll around the garden?”
“My husband will be back in a minute, maybe the three of us could get some air.”
“Perhaps it’s not that hot. I’ll see you later.”

In this second example, the dynamics of this exchange are played out without anything being said directly. The man approaches the woman and starts to talk to her. She pretends to misinterpret his approach as a check on whether she is about to steal anything. He asks her if she wants to go for a walk in the garden, she introduces the fact that he is married, and so he backs off. The exchange is all the more interesting for being oblique, for being shown.

So dialogue is one of the most powerful techniques you can use to show the reader, rather than tell them, what’s going on.

In my next blog we will explore the power that invoking the senses can give your work.

You’ll be able to hear my interview with Nick Page, including our discussion of how the senses can transform your writing, in episode 41 of my podcast, The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt from the 24th July 2015.

Nick will be a guest speaker at our First Page writers course in the Lake District this November. You can get in touch via my website to find our more.

Andrew J Chamberlain is a writer, speaker, and creative writing tutor. He is the presenter of The Creative Writer's Toolbelt a podcast that offers practical, accessible advice on the craft. Andrew has worked on a number of ghost-writing collaborations for Authentic Media, including the bestselling 'Once an Addict' with Barry Woodward. He has also self-published a number of science fiction short stories. Andrew will be speaking at the First Page Writing Course this November.


  1. Interesting points. I've really been working hard on dialogue in my current WIP, especially on beginnings and endings of it ... cutting out those unnecessary 'Bye' 'Bye' 'See you later' moments etc and finishing early. And starting late, without all the introductions of a normal conversation. It seems to make such a difference.

  2. Useful stuff, Andrew. (As one who writes a lot of dialogue, and bare description, I so believe we can move the story on, bring insight into our characters, and generally make a book readable by doing good dialogue!)