Monday, June 30, 2014

Dialogue that Propels the Story Forward

"Blah, blah, blah," she said.


"Did you hear what I just said?"

"Didn't understand it, more life it."

"Why you...!"

Have you ever experience or witnessed a conversation like that? Read one in your recent books? Did it make you want to throw the book against the wall and yell, "just get to the point!"

Been there.

Dialogue should be about something. It should move the plot forward in some way or it's useless. Pretty much like the beginning of this blog post, eh?

As a writing coach, it's difficult not to tell my clients that their dialogue just doesn't work, and then try to get them to understand that it must connect with the theme and plot, include tensions and suspense, all while moving the story forward.

So, they usually throw up their hands in despair and ask, "Why write at all?"

I have a trick or two to help you. Actually my trick is Gloria Kempton and her book Dialogue: Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue. The tricks are hers and now yours.

Your Dialogue Must Move The Story Forward
Move the plot forward. Sounds easy, right?
Dialogue is a means to an end, not the end itself. Don't get all caught up in your characters having a great conversation that you forgot what your story was all about and why these two characters were in it.

Simple tip: You engage your characters in conflict and use dialogue to increase their struggle.

According to Ms. Kempton:

Dialogue is one of the fiction elements you can use to propel your plot forward and integrate your theme into each scene. They 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), 
  • set 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.

If you remember the seven purpose of dialogues, you can get through this.

Provides New Information
Have your characters talking and then have one of them add a new bit of information that takes the conversation and plot into an entirely new direction. Throw obstacles at your readers.

Reveals New Obstacles
When considering dialogue, an obstacle to a character's goal works the same and throwing in a new topic or conversation direction that creates immediate conflict. The character can express his discomfort verbally, but he's going to have to physically do something to move the story forward.

Increases Suspense
Suspense increases when you keep making it look worse for your characters. You can do this very well with dialogue because the character is already "in the moment" and the reader is "watching" how the character is going to handle the suspense that's been dropped on him.

According to Ms. Kempton: Suspense is achieved in dialogue when the viewpoint character gets "that feeling" about the other character in the scene. Or suddenly realizes that things are not as they seem.

Furthers The Theme
Gloria Kempton loves when an author lets a character reveal the story's theme in dialogue. In her book, "Dialogue" she tells about getting a "kick" out of observing how other writers do it, whether novelists or screenwriters.

She says: When a character announces the story's theme in the middle of a passage of dialogue, it gives the other characters the opportunity to respond and move the action in one direction or another. This can be very effective, because while the reader my not necessarily be able to recognize the theme as the a-ha moment in the story, subconsciously it registers as a pivotal moment and the reader holds her breath, waiting to see how the other characters will respond.

Shows Character Transformation
As writers, we should be changing our characters, in subtle ways, throughout our story. This is why we write fiction. We want to show how our character can change. For the better or worse. In order for a transformation to happen, and our characters changed forever, a profound moment has to happen. In dialogue, it happens with words.

Reveals/Reminds of Goals
Obstacles. That's an important elements when helping characters change and move the story along. Throwing obstacles at your character reminds him/her about their goal, their intention in the scene, and in the story.  To do this the best way possible, you use your protagonist to show these change with action and dialogue.

Gloria says: In every scene, you want to remind your reader of the main character's intention, as this is the way you engage your reader and keep engaging her as the story progresses. Using dialogue for  this purpose is especially effective because the character is stating his goal out loud.

Would you rather your character say around and thought about his passion or reminisced about his intention? Showing with dialogue is so much better. And it moves the scene along.

Keeping Your Characters In Social Settings
I know it sounds simple, but dialogue can't happen if there isn't more than one character. If you have your character talk to themselves too long, the story goes south and the reader becomes bored. So, how do we keep the story moving? Add more than one character to the scene.

Readers really enjoy when characters are engaged in dialogue and action.

Simple Tip: A scene of dialogue must always move the story forward in some way.

There is a strategy for bringing all three elements of the scene together: dialogue, narrative, and action. It's so the scene is balanced and focused on its purpose.

Was this helpful?

Resource: Dialogue: Techniques an Exercises for Crafting Effective Dialogue by Gloria Kempton
Copyright: coramax / 123RF Stock Photo


  1. Choose a Concept - You will have more freedom in deciding what you should write about, if the instructor has not assigned a concept.

  2. Thanks, this really helps :)

  3. This is really cool! I would like to point out that conversations can also be good to A: be comical B: reveal different characters feelings about each other and C: reveal characters personality traits. Also, one good tip for keeping the social settings is to have several main characters or one main and a few sub-main characters.
    Thank You! Hope you can use this to your advantage!

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