Functions of dialogue

Dialogue is a fundamental part of fiction. But are you making it work hard enough? This article describes some of the ways dialogue can and should be functioning in your story.

Primary functions

In real life, people say things that have no informative value. For example:

“How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“Nice day today.”

In fiction, however, there should be no extraneous speech. Dialogue should always do one of the following, and preferably two or three:

  1. Dialogue reveals character. What people say and how they say it, and how they respond to each other, tells us a lot about them.
  2. It provides information. The challenge is doing this without it being obvious. Let information come out naturally at an appropriate time.
  3. It advances the plot. Again, it shouldn’t be obvious that this is what’s happening, but dialogue is usually a part of vital scenes that move the story forward.

Additional functions

Subtext

On the one hand there is what people say; on the other hand there is what they actually mean. This is the difference between text and subtext. Text is the words; subtext is what’s going on under the surface.

For example, consider the following:

“Do you like my new dress?”

“I like the colour.”

Or

“Are you sure you’re not disappointed?”

“No….not at all.”

From those few words of each example, you can feel the undercurrents swirling beneath. The word ‘like’ in the first example tells us heaps, while the …. in the second example speaks volumes. Choose your characters’ words carefully and you can reveal much more.

Now imagine how much much more we could convey if we added some actions and body language, perhaps a sideways glance or a sigh. People are often doing something as they talk (for example rolling a cigarette, driving a car) so use that to reveal the thoughts, emotions and conflicts of the characters.

Punctuate speech and actions with description where appropriate to build the scene and the right tone and atmosphere.

Think about what motivates your character. If you know who they are and what they want, you can determine how they might express themself to the other person.s there a side of themself they want to project or not project?

Character in bucketloads

I talked about character above under ‘Primary functions’ but you can go further by using dialogue to make your characters sound absolutely unique. Their dialect, favourite phrases, simply the way they hesitate or use pauses – all these can reveal additional character. Make each character different from the others.

Just don’t over do ‘um’s’ and ‘ers’. People use them in real life but in fiction you want dialogue to flow. Less is more. The same goes for accents or dialects. Overdo it and it will just annoy the reader.

What is not said

Sometimes what is not said is just as important as what is said. Use silences and pauses (remember that … above?) 

Textual arrangement

Dialogue breaks up the text on the page. Without it, pages can appear like dense blocks of text and can be off-putting to read, especially if you write long paragraphs. This function of dialogue may seem trivial but it really does matter. It will deter readers from even starting your book/story or beginning the next chapter if they pick it up and it appears to be solid and impenetrable.

That said, don’t insert dialogue where it’s not needed just to break up the text. It’s more important to be true to what’s appropriate for your story.

Last word

Dialogue should flow. Read it out loud to see if it sounds natural.

If you open any modern novel you will notice that the main dialogue tag used is ‘said’. This is because the eye skips over it so the reader just reads the dialogue. It generally shouldn’t be necessary to use other tags (such as ‘whispered’ or ‘shouted’) because the dialogue itself and the body language and expressions that you write with it should make it clear what the tone and nature of the speech is.

What are your thoughts on the above? Tell me in the comments below.

Functions of dialogue in fiction
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