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DIALOGUE #3: Purpose
There's a lot of dialogue that should work in theory but still somehow fails the reader. Most of the time, this can be explained by a lack of purpose. Let's discuss.
Posted on 13 February 2021 0 Comments
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The Key to Good Dialogue is PANIC

(Once again, the necessary disclaimer: Everything I present here has been influenced by essays, articles and books I read as a student. I don’t want to claim anything as my original thought. Still, going back to find out who said what seems too much to tackle at the moment. Don’t think of this as me teaching my original wisdom. Think of it as sharing what I’ve learned.)

Every now and again, I have a good idea. Not often, but it happens. So, one day I sat down to think about how to determine what to cut from the first draft of my novel. Right then, I came across four elements, at least one of which should be present in each sentence I’ve written. And the brilliant thing is: They spelt out an acronym.

Now, you might wonder why this is posted under the heading “DIALOGUE”, when it’s clearly about the whole of writing. And to that, I repeat my old mantra: Narration is dialogue. In the same manner as your story’s characters speak to one another, your story’s narrator is speaking to their audience.

If you don’t agree with me equating narration with dialogue, I won’t hold it against you. Sometimes your narrator is a non-identity and you wouldn’t feel comfortable treating him as a character. I get that. In that case, just think of this post as being about both of these things at the same time. — Still, you should make sure that each and every line serves its purpose.

So, let’s get going:

The Elements of PANIC


I read quite a lot of fiction by newer “amateur” authors, and I’ve come across of novels, screenplays and other stories where the dialogue just seems to drag along endlessly. Even though it isn’t bad dialogue per se. — You see, sometimes we make the mistake of thinking about plot and dialogue as separate entities. But they are not: Dialogue is a key element of plot.

In fact, speaking is just another action your characters perform: Think of Macbeth for example. His conversations with his wife hold the same dramatic value and serve the same purpose as him killing Duncan, or her sleepwalking: They propel the story forward.

No matter how good your dialogue is, readers seldomly enjoy anything that doesn’t add to the action. We don’t want to accompany your protagonist into the office to hear about the newly implemented rules for e-mail correspondence. We want to witness her co-workers belittling her; we want to see her standing up to her boss and quitting; we want to see her get fired for breaking the e-mail rules.

Now, you might say: “But my novel is supposed to be realistic. And casual conversation is necessary for that.” — To that, I say this: You can have realistic dialogue in your novel – just don’t write it down. Skip over it or mention it in passing.

What you’re looking for in a realistic novel isn’t an exact copy of the real world; it’s a heightened, distilled version of realism: Keep it brief. Avoid small talk. Avoid speeches. — Sometimes one “boring” realistic line can be enough to carry the weight of the entire realistic conversation. Don’t burden us with the rest. Just skip it.

Still, there are reasons to have dialogue (or in fact narration) without advancing the plot. There are valid reasons to break this rule. And they’re coming up next:


In movies, the visual aspect of the experience carries with it a lot of the atmosphere. That’s why, in general, movies have less dialogue than novels, and significantly less dialogue than stage plays. Consequently, cinematic dialogue is more concerned with plot (and character).

But in novels, we are at a disadvantage: Plot is not enough to create the mood we want to go for. We need a little extra: That’s why we bother to describe the colour of the falling leaves or the sound of footsteps. We certainly don’t need to know this – but it helps to create the atmosphere.

But not only narration can create atmosphere: The conversations of our characters themselves generate certain responses. — While a mono-syllabic conversation about the weather might not be an actual plot point, it can still create this awkward mood that in turn helps to motivate the next steps of our protagonist.

Or think about a newly introduced character babbling on about their busy morning. We might not care about that; but if it’s packaged nicely, it lets us believe that the world of the story is bigger than we can see. Still, you need to make it sound natural – or this gets annoying pretty fast.

At other times, the reaction to a line of dialogue creates the intended atmosphere: Think of a housewife telling her husband about her day and him dozing off halfway through. We probably don’t need to know about her talk with Mrs Chatwick from next door to keep the plot going. But maybe we need the atmosphere of quiet resignation in order to take the next scene more seriously.

Necessary Information

All of us writers, including myself, have one common nemesis: exposition. Rather annoyingly as well, we need exposition to tell a good story. Dialogue is, of course, a nice way to deal with it. But there are a few precautions we should take:

Avoid info-dumps. Not every detail is necessary (or even relevant) information. In a perfect world, you would only plant the information you wish to harvest later on. In other words: Only sow what you plan to reap later on.

Avoid redundancies. There’s a thin line between repeating something important and hammering your reader over the head with it. (For a good example how annoying redundancies (even comical ones) can get, check out A Series of Unfortunate Events.)

My guideline is this: The longer it takes for your information to be relevant again, the more often you should repeat it. If Chekhov’s gun was brought up in Scene 1 and fired in Scene 2, it would suffice to see it once. If there are 20 scenes in different locations between them, you might want to make sure your audience remembers that gun from the first scene.

Trojan-horse your exposition. The best way to sneak in a bit of information you need for later on is by hiding it in plain sight. If you need to introduce a deadly weapon, don’t just let your protagonist say: “Oh, by the way, I need a gun.” – Rather, let him say something like: “If that man dares to talk to you once more, I’ll get my gun and…”

Conflict and emotional scenes are a great way to distract from some sneaky exposition. Extra points if they also propel the plot forward.


Finally, we come to the matter of character. And yes, I’ll admit, that whatever dialogue reveals about a character, could also be found under necessary information. But PANI just wouldn’t sound so good. Also, character goes further than mere exposition.

Think about this: A young businesswoman enters a meeting. The first thing he does is complain about the temperature of the room being too cold. We might deem her a negative nancy. On the other hand, if she stated that turning the room to a temperature suitable to the men in suits – in contrast to the woman in dresses – is inherently sexist, we might think of her as especially socially critical. — Neither advances the plot; but both give us an idea of her character.

Even without listening to what is said, we learn a lot about our protagonists by how they say things: Which words do they choose? How do they punctuate their sentences? Do they stutter and stumble over their words, or can they hold entire speeches without taking a breath? Do they use profanities? Speak in vernacular? Do they maybe not speak at all?

The important thing to remember when writing is this: These things change with their context. A student who might hold a brilliantly worded presentation on the basics of quantum theory could fail to string together three words when presented with their love interest. — It’s precisely the contradictory nature of a characters conversations that make them interesting.

Also – and I can’t stress this enough: Tell us about body language and facial expressions. If a nice old lady says something utterly bigotted with a smile on her face, she suddenly has dimension. She’s morally bankrupt but outwardly very inviting. If she were to say the same thing with a huge frown, she’d be the easiest of stereotypes.

What Can We Learn from this?

I have the nagging suspicion that I could have gone more in-depth about this topic if I had taken the time. Still, I think it’s a good starting point when thinking about dialogue. For all those of you who thought I went on for too long, here’s the condensed version:

  1. Every line of your dialogue (and narration) should serve at least one of these four purposes: plot, atmosphere, necessary information and character.
  2. Dialogue is a form of plot. Even in realistic storytelling, it should, therefore, get to the point and result in further action by your characters.
  3. Use dialogue and reactions to it in a way to create atmosphere. — Atmosphere itself serves as the motivation for further plot points.
  4. You can easily hide exposition in your dialogue. Just make sure it’s short, relevant and accompanied by something plot-related.
  5. Your characters are defined by what they say and how they say it. Use vernacular, punctuation, word choice, body language, expressions and specific speech patterns to make them sound unique.
  6. Don’t panic. PANIC.

Happy writing,

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