Friday, April 8, 2016

Creating Tension: Put Dialogue to Work

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

It's Friday again! And that means it's my turn! *crowd goes wild* ;)

Today, we're continuing our conversation about creating tension in our stories. 

If you're joining us in the middle of the chat, here are the first four posts in the series. Check them out when you have time:

Dialogue is one of the hardest, most rewarding things for me to write. I'm sure you have your own opinions on it--or perhaps you're new enough to the writing thing that you haven't developed an opinion--but when I go back and read a piece of dialogue I've written that rings true and feels authentic, I jump up and down a little bit. It's that exciting for me.

Dialogue--especially the kind of dialogue that creates tension in your story--must be worked at.

Here are five things to consider:

Avoid the boring stuff. 

You and I say boring, completely necessary stuff all day long. We say, "Hi!" and "um" and we greet people we see with the standard, "How are you?" constantly. Totally normal. You should all keep doing these things. But on the page, these filler words drag at the story. They rarely introduce any kind of valuable information and they can dampen any tension you've been trying to build. You've probably heard it said that writers should not waste words. This is particularly true with dialogue. Every word your characters say should be moving the story forward in some way. If it is not, reconsider. Which brings me to . . .

Dialogue should accomplish more than one thing. 

Well-written dialogue does more than simply show the reader that two or more people have things to talk about. Well-written dialogue jumps off the page and surrounds the reader with things like mood and tone. It should reveal--or at least hint at--how well the characters know one another and whether they enjoy each other's company. You should catch glimmers of a character's education and the things that are important to them. When dialogue is doing its job, it's furthering the layers of conflict and tension in your story.

Here's a very short excerpt from Dark Halo, the third book in the Angel Eyes trilogy. See if you can pinpoint tone and personality and relationship here. Read it twice if you have to. This small section is accomplishing a lot.

“You mind if we make a little detour?”
Kay crosses her arms. “Are you plotting, Mysterioso?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“You’re not going to kill Henry, are you? Cause Slugger’s a Bug. A Volkswagen Beetle. We’d have to cram the body in the bonnet. The bonnet, Marco. Plus, I’d be the worst getaway driver ever.”
A smile’s taken Marco’s face before he thinks to fight it. “You ever think about acting? Your comic timing is very . . .”
“Betty White?” Kay tries.
“Phoebe Buffay.”
“I’m flattered, but no. I fall daily. Cameras would be all kinds of unhelpful. No murder, okay? Promise me.”
“No murder,” he says. “Shall I pinkie swear?”
Kay’s standing two steps higher than he is, and when she leans forward, her forehead nearly smacks his. Her brown eyes rove his face, like two searchlights routing out a criminal.
After a minute she straightens up, turns on her heel, and marches up the stairs, puffs of flour squelching from her slippers.
“All right,” she calls over her shoulder. “Detour it is. But if Slugger poops out, you’re pushing.”

Exposition does not belong in dialogue. 

Trying to slip information to the reader by summarizing backstory or description into dialogue is a mistake a lot of new writers make. Shake off the bad habit because as you get more experienced, it'll be recognized as lazy writing. For example: 

"Sarah," Billy said, "I haven't seen you since you quit your job at the only diner in town. Your red hair was different then, but since your mom is a hair dresser at the salon next door, I shouldn't be surprised."

Clunky, right? Ick. Clearly, the writer wanted to pass some information along to the reader. What did good old Billy tell us? In this condensed bit of dialogue, we learned that Sarah used to work at the only diner in town, that she has red hair, that her hair has changed, and that her mom is a hair dresser. Let me give it another go.

"Sarah Anne Johnson!" Billy crowed. "Never thought I'd see you back here!"

"Mom's practicing again," Sarah says, spinning, her red hair flashing in the sunlight.

"It's short. Is it supposed to be that short?"

"You don't like it?"

"Petey won't. He has a type, remember? Curls and curves. Won't hire anyone else to sling hash."

"Then it's a good thing I'm not the least bit interested in slinging hash these days."

Okay, okay. It's not perfect, but you get the gist. You can't slide a bit of "telling" in between quotation marks and call it "showing." You have to do the hard work of developing a conversation. But the upside is that when you dig deep and write this way, you almost always create tension. I wasn't even trying for conflict up there and I stumbled into it when poor Billy insulted Sarah's new hair cut. Dig deep. Do the work. Create tension by letting your characters talk to one another.

Keep your sentences short. 

Obviously there are exceptions to this and every rule we lay out for you here. But in the thick of dialogue, your sentences should never be any longer than they have to be. It reads much more naturally this way and it also helps the reader. White space on a page is good. It breaks up the monotony of black ink and helps with pace. We don't want our readers to stop reading, do we? Short bits of dialogue keep them moving forward.

Your characters must be distinct. 

JK Rowling is fabulous at this. When you're reading her Harry Potter stories, readers never have trouble distinguishing between the character's voices. Ron doesn't sound anything like Hermione and neither of them sound like Harry. They have their own nuances and their speech has a unique cadence and there are certain words each of them use more than others. This takes work for most of us, but when you write unique sounding characters, you don't have to depend so heavily on dialogue tags, which, let's be honest, is the most basic form of "telling" you'll ever find in a novel.

When you work hard to develop each character's voice, you are giving them so much more than just a unique sound. You're giving them a backstory and speech patterns. You're giving them goals and dreams and their own reasons for having conversations with others. All of these things generate conflict and tension when you let your characters be themselves in dialogue.

I'm just scratching the surface here, you guys. Just knocking on the door of all the things that dialogue can do for your fiction. In our own lives, tension and conflict often start when we open our yaps and stick our foot in it. Your characters are no different. And with some elbow grease and a writer's imagination, you can put your characters to work creating tension in your story.

Tell me, do you find writing dialogue difficult? Are there writers who inspire you in this area?


  1. I LOVE writing dialogue. It's a really spectacular way to work in character voice and lots of tension, even if the characters aren't arguing.

    Oh, and one question about dialogue--I've heard that a writer should stick to mostly "said", "shouted", and "whispered" (i.e. plain dialogue tags) and only lightly pepper in unique ones. Now, I'm not going to be "expostulating" anything, but would it be okay if I used something like "mumbled" or "scoffs" once in a while, or should I use an action beat for those instances?

    Thanks for the post, Mrs. Dittemore!

    1. I know your question wasn't directed at me, Linea, but since I'm a writer who mostly uses only "said," "shouted," and "whispered," I figured I might be able to help. I think it's absolutely fine to use "mumbled" or "scoffs." If they get your point across, why not use them, right? Action beats are good in their place, for certain, but how exactly would you "show" mumbling?

      Just something to think about.

    2. Thanks for the advice, Unknown! As for how I would show mumbling, it would be in a situation like this:

      I slap my hand over his mouth.
      "Okay, okay, I'll shut up," He mumbles through my fingers.


      Mouth full of food, he mumbles something that sounds like, "Yeah, that's fine."

    3. Hmm... good point. You could certainly change the pacing a bit in an interesting way with that sort of thing if it gets monotonous.

    4. Well, here are some words (you have the most common):

      said (to explain how they said it better):
      My brain is foggy right now. I can't think of anything for whispered.
      Sorry if I am being too much like a dictionary! ;)

  2. Yeah! Someone else who struggles with dialogue. I have a difficult time writing GOOD dialogue. One of my main struggles is making my character's speech different.

    It is comforting to know that you have trouble, sometimes, too. I tore through the Angel Eyes trilogy in December and got my mom and a few friends hooked. We all adored them and I really enjoyed the dialogue.

    I loved this post it was really helpful. Thank you so much, Mrs. Dittemore.

    1. Good luck!! Hope everything goes well!

    2. I agree, writing character dialogue with differences is difficult. Often in early drafts, dialogue will sound the same for the characters, until I've thoroughly developed the characaters' personalities and quirks and then their dialogue starts to change on it's own. Sometimes :)

  3. I love writing conflict through dialogue, but it usually takes me a couple tries before I get it the way I like it. I guess that means I know what I'm aiming for, and I'll get there eventually?
    Conflict between characters is always my favorite to write, because it's just so much fun to torture the characters! I am so an evil writer.
    Great post, as usual. Thank you!

  4. Writing dialogue is somewhat difficult; I could definitely add more conflict into it, though. I really like conflict in dialogue, but it never seems to come except when a certain character who is sort of supposed to disagree with everyone comes onto the page. I'll certainly try to add more.

  5. Thank you!! This is helpful. This is a great post like always. Thank you!

  6. Thanks a ton!! This is helpful!! Writing dialogue is some what hard, but this will help!

  7. Thanks, this is totally helpful!!! :)

  8. I like writing dialogue, but it can be hard to make character voices sound distinct (and make them sound less like me, haha). Thanks for the helpful post!

  9. This is a great article! I think the one that I need to work on most is voice. I know in my head the distinctions between how all my characters speak, but I have trouble getting it out on paper.

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

  10. This is such a helpful post! Thank you so much for writing it. I will definitely try to put this into practice!

  11. Thank goodness I don't have much issue with dialogue! It's my favorite part to write. It shows so much about a character like you said. I have been writing for as long as I can remember, so my characters speaking usually comes naturally. My problem is character development. I have some issues with getting them from one point to the next without it seeming...mediocre.

    Thanks for writing this! I love the tone of it. :D

  12. Thank you for posting this for teens. Dialogue was very difficult for me for a long time. It still is, and I often rewrite scenes. The things I find help me out if I am having trouble are these: 1) I listen to real dialogue like at a coffee shop or school or whatever. 2) I will write out a scene I'm having trouble with using ONLY dialogue. 3) I take a break, come back to it later, and rewrite it with intermitent actions and whatnot. This helps to reduce/eliminate dialogue tags, as well as help me to write more authentic dialogue. This post is great, I definitely wish I had a blog like this as a teen :)