Advancing the plot without dialogue

by Jennifer
(St. Paul, MN, USA)

Hi again, and thanks again for your help. It's simply fantastic that you are willing to lend a hand.

I find that I'm leaning really, really heavily on dialogue to advance my plot. It's almost as though I feel like nothing can really happen in a story unless at least two people are talking to each other. I know in my head that this isn't true, but I keep falling back on it over and over again.

When I think of some of my favorite books, I realize that many of them don't have nearly as much dialogue. "Huck Finn," for example - Twain has long stretches with no dialogue and when he does use it it's often only to punctuate a scene. Sometimes it's only a few lines of dialogue, to give color, with the rest of it summarized by Huck's first-person narration. I'm not using first-person, and I can't figure out how to summarize and advance the plot in a way that is interesting. I also feel like I can't get to Point B or C without putting every detail out on paper (even if I take it out later), and part of that includes the things the characters say to each other. It's like I can't really know my own characters or understand their relationships until I see what they have to say. I really enjoy "watching" them get to know each other - it's almost as though I insert myself into the scene.

I wonder if other writers do this - maybe I can just go back later and edit out big chunks of the dialogue and summarize them...? Can you think of specific works that are more dialogue heavy (other than plays or screenplays, obviously)?

Augh. Not even sure what I'm trying to ask at this point. Any insights at all are appreciated!

Answer: A lot depends on the type of story you are writing. In a story where character relationships are the foreground, dialogue is a powerful tool for exploring those relationships. But it is not the only tool, and in some books there are other features that demand attention.

A few tips...

1. There's nothing wrong with writing an extensive conversation and then going back and editing out everything non-essential. Good dialogue, it is often said, is conversation with the boring bits cut out. You pare it down so that the final product says a lot in as few words as possible.

2. Remember that action can reveal and explore relationships as well--whether that means simple things like a meaningful look or a casual gesture, or big deeds such as the hero rescuing the princess from a dragon.

3. Sometimes, long conversations between two people without action can turn them into disembodied voices in a vacuum. Giving them some activity to engage in while they are talking can reinforce the reality of the scene. In film, this can get a bit silly at times (people talking while furiously pacing through corridors, or evaluating their relationship while they defuse a bomb). As Shakespeare said, you must "suit the action to the word, the word to the action."

4. It is more common to find very long passages of dialogue in literary fiction, where the emphasis is more on style than plot. A writer may deliberately push the boundaries of dialogue for stylistic purposes in such a work. In genre fiction, readers may have a stronger desire for a plot. Again, you have to decide what type of story you are writing and for whom.

5. Readers like variety. Alternating among fast and slow passages, dialogue, exposition, action, reflection, etc. can make the prose more energetic. Your own emotions can guide you as to when it is time to vary the pace, but getting comments from others helps too.

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