Dialogue serves many purposes. I've selected five.
2. Highlight information
3. Reveals backstory
4. Adds character depth
5. Moves the plot
Dialogue is action, and readers love action!
They may skim or even skip large paragraphs of narrative to get to the action.
Quotation marks and white space let them know where an action scene is.
Now, there is no guideline for how much dialogue to have in your novel, but it should balance the narrative.
The white space dialogue provides draws readers to that part of the page.
Because they are drawn to dialogue, it should highlight information the reader needs to know to understand backstories, get a deeper understanding of the characters, and follow the plot.
Readers expect what is in dialogue to be important, so it shouldn’t be small talk or a ‘how’s the weather’ discussion—unless the weather is vital to the storyline. 😊
It’s easy to default to telling the reader a character or planet’s backstory instead of creating scenes where they can learn while you entertain them.
Telling the reader can feel like a list of facts.
I hadn’t seen her in three years. Back then, I was miserable waiting tables, and she was an intern at Top Financial. She hated every minute of it.
“What’s it been? Three years?” I asked.
“About that.” She pointed at a table near the window.
I took the seat farthest from the door to keep an eye on it. “You hated that internship at Top Financial.”
She chuckled. “You couldn’t get out of waitressing fast enough.”
The same information is relayed to the reader in both, but the dialogue is more entertaining. And readers know it must be important since it is in dialogue!
A question-and-answer session can help reveal backstory. But be cautious of tells.
“You know, the last time we spoke, you were an intern. As I recall, you hated your job back then.”
“I remember. I also remember you were a waitress and couldn’t get out of the job fast enough.”
You know, recall, and remember are too obvious. The reader will see right through them, and they detract from what is important.
Through dialogue, you can add character depth and show the relationship between characters.
Dialogue can indicate education, upbringing, relationships, and personality.
Some characters may speak formally and others not. When around certain people, they may drop words or feel comfortable interrupting without offending. They can have specific phrases to show their individuality.
Moving the plot
Dialogue should also move the plot forward.
As with any scene, something should happen that adds to the story.
Whether it is a loss, like a sage is unwilling to take on an apprentice, or a win, like a friend is willing to help, the scene should get the character(s) to the next conflict.
After the waiter came over and asked for our order, I told her about my business idea about a pet dessert shop, and she said she might be able to get me a short-term loan.
(This is an example of a dialogue recap. While recaps can work in some instances, it reads flat. In most cases, it’s better to avoid them and show the reader instead.)
The waiter came over and asked for our order. I got a soda, and she a martini. I placed my hands on the sides of the table and sat straight. “So, I have this idea.”
“My assistant said something about animals.”
“A pet dessert shop.” I grinned and glanced at the door. “I took some baking courses, so I know how to make the treats. And there isn’t a place around here that caters to pet sweets. I think there is a real market for it.”
She leaned forward. “Sounds fun.”
“It will be. There’s a space I want about two blocks from here. I’m picturing pastels and—”
The bell over the door rang. My eyes flicked to the man entering, and my shoulders dropped. I noticed her brow furrow.
“And there are already display cases I can use.”
She held her hand up and smiled. “Relax. I’m interested. I think it’s worth looking into securing you a loan.”
In this scene, the character pitching the idea starts out excited, maybe a bit nervous, and ends up in a better position with her friend on board. However, securing the loan will be another obstacle, as the friend only says, “It’s worth looking into,” and not, “I’ll give you a loan.”
While it’s true, the dialogue scene is longer, it is more entertaining because the characters are active. It adds setting and character depth. It shows their relationship, the excitement the character has for her idea, and the other character’s willingness to support her.
After reading the narrative version, the reader will still wonder what important information they should take from those paragraphs.
After the dialogue version, the reader knows everything said is important.
There’s so much more to say about dialogue. Realism, establishing character closeness, how to include wit without overdoing it, avoiding clichés, decreasing extra words like ‘Um,’ pauses, punctuation ... but those are for another time.
For now, make sure your dialogue serves these purposes.