Wheels Of Motion

Dialogue That Propels The Story Forward

By Gloria Kempton

I sighed and put the novel manuscript down. How could this fiction writer really think she was engaging the reader? The two characters were simply sitting at the breakfast table, chatting about their daily to-do lists while eating bowls of cereal. The viewpoint character was crunching her corn flakes and staring out into the field behind her house while saying such profound things as, "I wonder if we should take Ginger in for her distemper shot," and "Do you think Law &Order will be a rerun tonight?" Crunch, crunch. How did I nicely tell this writer that her dialogue needed a bit of help?

I decided to ask the students in my weekly novel class what would make this dialogue spark.

"Well, if while the lady is staring into the backyard, a spaceship lands," one student suggested.

"If the lady is rambling on and on about nothing and the husband calmly tells her he's having an affair or wants a divorce or is a cross-dresser. She keeps talking and doesn't even hear him."

"If the lady is talking, taking the day for granted, and doesn't notice that her husband's face is in his breakfast cereal. He's just died of a heart attack."

These were pretty good ideas. I was proud of my class. They understood that dialogue should be about something. The dialogue needs to move the plot forward in some way or it's useless.

As a writing coach, I see pointless and useless dialogue all the time. It feels harsh to continually point it out, and writers don't always understand why their dialogue doesn't work, but unless it connects to the- theme and plot and includes tension and suspense while moving the story forward (a tall order), why bother? Why write a story at all?

Dialogue That Moves

Writing a story that stands still will risk your reputation as a writer of artistic fiction. I can't overemphasize the importance of making sure your dialogue moves the plot forward. Dialogue is only a means to an end--it's not the end itself. Dialogue, in and of itself, is simply a fiction element, a tool to be used to move the story forward. That means engaging your characters in conflict and using dialogue to increase their struggle.

Your characters' struggles are revealed through both your theme and your plot. The first is internal and the second is external. Writers in my classes will often say to me, "Why do I have to have a theme? Can't I just write a nice little story?" Sometimes they even ask that question about plot. "Plot? Why do we need a plot?"

Woe be it unto me to try to convince you that stories need both a theme and a plot. Sure, you can just skip these two elements of fiction--if you want to write stories for yourself, that is. I could be wrong, but I'm going to take a wild guess and assume that if you're reading this book, you most likely are thinking about submitting your short stories and novels for publication at some point. If that's true, then you need both a theme and a plot in your stories.

Dialogue is one of the fiction elements you can use to propel your plot forward and integrate your theme into each scene. The way you do this is to set your characters up in an animated discussion scene that does any one of a number of things: provides new information to the characters about the conflict, reveals new obstacles that the viewpoint character must overcome to achieve his goal, creates the kind of dynamic between the scene characters that furthers the story's theme, introduces a pivotal moment in the plot that transforms the character(s), sets up the discussion so the character (and reader) are reminded of his scene and story goals, and/or accelerates the emotion and story movement to increase the suspense and make the situation more urgent for the characters.

Yes, this sounds like a tall order--how can you possibly use dialogue to do all of this, and in every single scene? It's not that difficult once you become aware of all of the purposes of dialogue and keep reminding yourself that your dialogue scenes must accomplish something and keep the story moving.

Gloria Kempton has encouraged and mentored over 7,500 writers through her one-on-one coaching. She is the author of Dialogue (Writer's Digest Books) and many other books. You can learn more at her website: http://www.gloriakempton.com/

Excerpted from Dialogue [Techniques And Exercises For Crafting Effective Dialogue] by Gloria Kempton Used by permission. © 2004 Writer's Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Publications, Inc.