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Using Dialogue to Advance Character and Plot

October 11, 2012

In a crucial scene in my novel, “The Champagne Ladies,” Adeline Podlowski pours a glass of wine for her husband, Emil, at dinner. In the published version, here’s Emil’s reaction:

He sipped his wine and said, “The blood of the lamb.”

In the previous drafts he said:

“This is good. I never had wine before.”

How banal is that? Not to mention irrelevant. The reader already knows Emil has never drunk wine because nowhere previously is he shown drinking it. At the dinner Emil is about to make a shattering announcement, and his line of dialogue foreshadows it. His dialogue amplifies his character and moves the story along, as the previous dialogue did not. That’s the key to dialogue; it’s not merely filler to take up space. That’s a common error many writers make. I know, I’ve made it dozens of times.

Dialogue should never be conversational, as in the following:

Hi, how are you?” Sam asked.

“I’m fine,” Bob replied. “And how are you?”

“I’m fine too.”

No one wants to read that, but that’s not to say dialogue of a conversational nature is always inappropriate. In two scenes of my novel the character Joey Baloney makes small talk. But there’s a reason: In one scene he’s stalling a person from confessing to a crime because he’s waiting for witnesses to hear it. In the second, he and Ben Podlowski find themselves in an awkward situation and Joey tries to make it more comfortable. It’s essential to the plot.

Another thing to remember about dialogue in a novel or short-story is that it shouldn’t sound exactly the way people talk in life. The say “um” and “Well, I think . . . ” and “uh’ a lot. Characters should not talk like that unless it’s absolutely essential.

Instead of writing:

“Where are you going?” Sam asked.

“Well, I think I’ll go to the the tavern.”

Better to change that second line to:

“The tavern.”

The point is, don’t give readers unnecessary words to read. That might fatigue them and they’ll stop reading altogether.

  1. Quite right – thanks for the insight, Gregg – enjoyed it 🙂

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