Ever read a scene in a novel where two characters are on a journey, they have a long conversation, and in the end, you put the book down and you have no idea what the point of that scene was?
Frustrating isn’t it?
Sometimes, your dialogue doesn’t follow a dramatic arc. How do authors make sure scenes have substance?
The Key to Let Your Characters Come Together
When two or more characters come together to dialogue, something new is created–it’s not a rule, but a nice guideline to make sure you aren’t just writing filler scenes.
In the previous posts, I wrote that characters need to be opinionated. Well, those opinions also need to be challenged, examined, questioned, and in some situations changed. But here’s a key to changing an opinion in dramatic structure:
An opinion doesn’t change until the heart changes. The heart doesn’t change until it has suffered.
The Key to Establishing Your Character’s Strong Desire
When you’re writing scenes, and you want to challenge your character, and trust me, you do want to challenge your character, there are some key ingredients you want to make sure you establish your character’s opinion and her strong desire to achieve something actionable (by actionable, I mean something that can be visualized or captured on film).
- Someone or something to push back against that opinion. That doesn’t have to be a villain. It could be a friend, a relative, or even society; a crucible for that opinion and its opposing arguments. In one form or another, your reader will start asking your characters why they have the opinions they have. It’s your job to show them why, and it’s your job to surprise them in the process. This is why starting a novel with the revelation of the character’s back-story is such a bad idea. Readers don’t care about your character’s biography; they care about what they’ll do when faced with a struggle. They care about how that struggle will shape the character’s opinions. This is the part of the scene where the character struggles. They struggle with their own opinion and the opinions of those around them.
- Create something new or destroy something old. There’s an old rule of writing scenes that states a character sets a goal in the beginning, and by the end she’s either been told no, she won’t get what she wants, or she’s been told no, not only will she not get what she wants, but things are going to be much worse, or she will get what she wants, but there’s a price to pay. This isn’t a bad rule, but it’s always felt a little meaningless to me. I much prefer the idea that the main character doesn’t get what they want because their opinion is holding them back. When they do get what they want, it’s because they’ve managed to negotiate around their own opinion. However, the old rule still holds up for most scenes. You want to end most of your scenes with your main character pushed back from their goal. But because a character doesn’t get what they want, doesn’t mean they leave the scene empty handed.
- When opinions clash, either something new is made or something old is destroyed. Like my example above; when the space commander and the artist both work together in a scene and discuss hyperspace, their added opinions create something new. If we’re in the commander’s point of view, that could be a whole new way of looking at the universe–the very insight she needs to make her decision about destroying an alien artifact so that rebel forces don’t capture it.
- A character tries to consistently follow the same path until she can’t. She tries to hold on to the same opinion until she can’t. This may seem simplistic, and some people might even claim I’m telling you to write one-dimensional characters, but dimensionality isn’t born from a hodgepodge of conflicting character attributes thrown together. Multidimensional characters are created through action and the character’s struggle. If someone holds the opinion that the victim of a crime should receive justice, even when that victim is normally scorned and hated by society, no one will think that character is one-dimensional because she seeks out that justice in the face of great adversity. They will only think she’s one-dimensional if you don’t put her through a struggle that constantly questions her opinion through dialogue, challenges her opinion through actions, and makes it clear to the reader that if she just didn’t hold this opinion she could walk away. Her character is defined by the moment she makes the choice to either walk away or to stay and fight.
The Key to Forging Your Character’s Great Dialogue
Great characters are forged on the page through struggle, and great dialogue is a reflection of the battle that goes into that struggle.
- Great dialogue focuses on the story and doesn’t wander into territory that isn’t related to what the character wants, the opinions she holds, or the struggle for and against those opinions.
- Dialogue reveals character through her opinions and actions.
- Great dialogue is used as a means of protecting the character’s true self from the people she believes can harm her. She often expresses the worst parts of her opinion when challenged, but acts on the better parts of her opinion.
- Great dialogue is a discussion that reveals, enlightens, and surprises the reader, it’s not a monologue that tries to make up for bad writing.
- Dialogue is appropriate for the dramatic situation–except when character opinion overrides the appropriateness.
- Great dialogue has meaning–it helps the reader follow the dramatic story arch, it creates the dimensionality of character through struggles, and it builds up or tears down the character’s opinion.
Like a great orchestra, the parts of narrative prose help to build the overall music of your story. Dialogue is just a single part, but an important one. Get it right and readers will return to your stories again and again. Get it wrong and it will be like listening to Beethoven’s Fifth with an entire section of screeching cats.
Part 2: 3 Ways to Show with Dialogue
Shawn Scarber lives and works in North Texas. His fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Black Denim Lit, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and Abyss & Apex magazines among others. He’s a Clarion West 06 graduate and an active member of the Future Classics Speculative Fiction Writers. Connect with him on Twitter @obliquefiction. Follow him on FaceBook fb.com/shawn.scarber or check out his website, shawnscarber.com.