Use dialogue to move story forward

Back in my college days, I had the great opportunity to take a writing course from TV comedy writer Danny Simon. He taught us a lot in that class, and I’ve probably forgotten most of it, but I kept my notes, so I can always go back and check.

One thing I don’t need to check is this: “Leave out the orange juice talk.”

What he meant by that is the boring conversations we have every day.

Mary: Bob, would you like some orange juice?
Bob: Yes, thank you, Mary, I’d love some orange juice.

writing dialogue

Illustration by ilker www.sxc.hu/profile/ilco

Unless orange juice is really key to the plot, you can gloss over this. Hence our next point:

The dialogue moves the story along.

Just skip over the orange juice and get to the plot.

Conversations between your characters may exist only to reveal information about them. But ideally, your dialogue will serve a plot function also. In addition to talking about thoughts and feelings, characters can use dialogue to react to plot actions and plan their response.

If it’s necessary for one character to essentially deliver a lecture—say Mary is a detective and she walks onto a crime scene and is briefed by a police officer—keep them moving and doing things while they talk. Collecting pieces of evidence, taking photos, whatever. The idea is to break up a lengthy informative speech with activity that moves the plot forward. That keeps it from feeling like a lecture to the reader.

Watch how TV shows and movies do this. You can get the same effect in a novel by combining dialogue and narrative action.

Keep backstory to a minimum

Dialogue can be a useful tool for introducing backstory, as one character who knows the story relates it to another. But this cannot be a lengthy conversation, because as long as you are talking about the backstory, the present story is not moving forward.

Great example:

Notice that clip is only half a minute long.

If you genuinely need to spend a lot of time on a past incident, consider whether what you really need is a flashback. I know, some people have told you not to use flashbacks. But a flashback is preferable to a long scene where people just talk about stuff that happened in the past.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

2 thoughts on “Use dialogue to move story forward

  1. R. A. Meenan says:

    Excellent post. I especially like that you pointed out that even in long pieces of dialogue, you should have characters moving about. Having movement keeps your readers interested.

    I like your flashback comment too. Sometimes a flashback can be wonderful. I tend to keep my short (a page or less) and that helps keep things interesting without leaving the current story for too long.

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