Purposeful Dialogue

Continuing my study of the art of dialogue, I turn again to Chris Roerden and her book, Don’t Murder Your Mystery. She’s got a single chapter on dialogue, and it’s loaded with good stuff. Here’s a tasty morsel from the first page:

“Effective dialogue is purposeful–the means by which characters strive to realize their objectives, act on their strategies, and incite reactions from others.”

The first thing I noticed is that “Hi, how are you,” “fine, thanks,” and “how’s your day” do not fulfill the purpose of dialogue. Removing these unimportant bits of dialogue immediately sharpen the text.

That leaves me with the rest of the dialogue text. This gets especially tricky when the character speaking is a minor character, or worse yet, a throw-away character, like the waitress taking an order, or the guy in the ticket booth selling movie passes. How can minor characters strive to realize their objectives, or act on strategies, or incite reactions? Maybe by having them want something other than what the protagonist wants. Or they want to push the protagonist in an opposite direction. Or they want to hide something from the protagonist.

The key is conflict. Throwing conflict into any piece of dialogue automatically adds interest and tension. More about that in later posts.

Challenge: go through a section of dialogue in your WIP that you feel is weak, and analyze every speaker. Do her words reveal her objectives, her motives, her strategies? Is she trying to incite a reaction from the other speaker? Is there any tension between the two speakers, or are they getting along beautifully? Shake them up, and see if it doesn’t improve the passage.


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