Turning the Spoken Inward

Churning out dialogue is the easiest technique for a writer to master. Not surprisingly, that is also the way a first draft may come out of your head. You imagine a setting, so the descriptions come forth, but mostly the conversations are what pour out. To a large degree, you fill in the other scene pieces around the dialogue. 

Yet dialogue also is the most opaque of writing methods. The same line spoken by a different character may take on a wholly different meaning, and the line can be interpreted various ways even if spoken by the same character. If you are interested in fuller characterization, you have to accept that your rat-a-tat scene is only the first step toward the one that will appear in your final draft. You must convert dialogue into narrative.

How is that done? One way is to isolate a block of dialogue. Let’s say a homeowner and his son want to tar a driveway. After a trip to their friendly Home Deep for a barrel of tar and some brooms, the father instructs his boy on how to do the job. Lots of dialogue, some pithy adolescent snark, stern dad you know the way they get. That runs on for several pages. Your goal is to reduce that by half, maybe more.

The first step is picking the point of view. Whose thoughts are running through the scene? Let’s choose the son, since sarcasm is fun in thoughts as well. Rather than talking through all of the steps of tarring—are you writing a manual?—try to summarize the basic points and then apply the son’s feelings about the procedure in general. Does he want to help in the first place? Is he physically uncoordinated? Is a part of him secretly terrified that, at some point, he is going to accidentally tip over the entire barrel of tar? 

Now go further. When does this scene occur in the book? In other words, what has happened between father and son prior to the scene, and where do you project they will end up? The son’s thoughts are also a step along that continuum. What did dad do earlier that week, or even that morning, that really pissed him off? Has the son just learned a shocking revelation about his dad? Bring that into the proceedings while he’s sweeping out the stupid tar like dad says.  

At the same time, you want to modulate the tone to fit the stage in the book. Do you really want an explosion on page 40 that leads to days of petulant silence? You may need to have them talk during those days. Stalking off in anger after the son has ruined the lawn would allow the two to cool off by that evening. 

When you start writing out all of the feelings, you’ll find that the dialogue shrinks to merely prompts for the next string of thoughts. The two pages might be broken up into interludes of a few lines apiece. Now the scene has become an exploration of character. 

“Grave silence is far more powerful than the same old voices yapping away.”        —Carolyn Chute

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.