Saturday, June 7, 2008

Dialogue And Its Purpose - Part 1

You’ve heard over and over again dialogue is purposeful. This means it’s not chitchat, not the kind of conversation we have in real life.

“Hi. How’ve you been?”
“Fine and you?”
“Good. We’ve been traveling.
“Really? How was the weather. Better than this I hope.”
“Sure was. We had sunshine everyday.”

Though this sounds like real conversation in everyday life, it’s totally boring, and you’d stop reading it that’s what you had to look forward to. Dialogue leads us forward in the story. Dialogue takes off in the meat of the discussion or in the middle of what’s important, known as medias res. With this in mind, look at the purposes or roles of dialogue in more detail.

• Present information and Reveals Backstory— Instead of telling the reader information through narration or introspection (where the character thinks about it), you can bring it to life by telling the character. Dialogue is active while narration is passive and introspection can also be an inactive form of explaining details to the reader. From my novel, And Baby Makes Five, read this dialogue and notice how information is provided in an interesting way.

Felica is a migrant work who’s gone into labor in the field. Seeing the farmer owner, she tries to hide the situation.

His gaze left her face and lowered to her bulging belly she’d tried to camouflaged by an oversized shirt. “Pregnant,” he muttered, then lifted his gaze to her. “ Estas usted embarazada?”

She tugged at her top to cover her belly and ignored his question, but she felt her face go pale.

“You’re in labor.” His voice sounded disbelieving, and he bent over her as frustration rattled in his throat. He straightened and scanned the field. “Husband?,” he muttered before he turned to her again. Dónde está su esposo?”

Felisa’s throat knotted. “Dead.” And good riddance, she added, then immediately became ashamed of her thought.

“You speak English.” Relief filled his face.


“You’re husband is dead?”

Felisa gave a fleeting nod. “Killed.”

He asks how it happened, and Felica provides details. This could have been written as a narrative: Felisa Carrillo watched the owner drawing near and tried to hide that she was in labor. Widowed only eight months earlier, her drunken husband staggered from a bar into traffic and was killed. He never knew she was pregnant.

Hopefully you see that dialogue brings the scene to life, provides some details about her past, and allows emotion to make the information more meaningful.

• Develops character — Through dialogue, the reader can hear the character’s attitude and personality. The dialogue can give clues to the character’s age, education, regional background, and so much more.

In the excerpt above, we learn about Felissa’s character, her determination, her quiet and uncertain demeanor, and obviously that she’s Hispanic.

• Advances the Plot — The short excerpt above advances the plot. A young migrant worker goes into labor in the field and is seen by her employer. She is now faced with a problem. She is a widow so she must work, but how can she work with a new baby to care for? We also hear the owner mutter when he asks is she pregnant. What will he do about this? Will he allow her to work in his field? When the dialogue leaves you with questions that make you want to read further, you have advanced the plot.

• Create Conflict — Besides advancing the plot, you can see the conflict that has already developed. The story presents a pregnant woman and an unhappy , but only a few lines farther the conflict deepens.

The man shook his head and drew out a handkerchief to wipe the perspiration from his face. “Do you have family in Salinas?”

“No,” she said, feeling another contraction grip her. She coiled into a ball.

“No family.”

She heard the irritation in his voice.

“You’re not having a baby in this field,” he said, his voice deepening with emotion. “I’ll take you to the hospital.”

“No, please,” she said, fearing a hospital bill. She barely had enough for food.

“The Natividad Medical Center. It’s a hospital. You’re not staying here,” he said, sounding determined and hitting numbers on his cell phone. “Can you walk?”

He turned his attention to the phone call while she let the last of the pain fade. Could she walk? Determination charged through her. She would. She had to.

Felicia must admit she has no family to help her. The owner’s insistence to take her to a hospital causes Felica to be desperate. She has no money. What will she do? Again, you hear irritation in his voice, and you witness Felica’s determination to be strong and to not be defeated by anyone.

My next blog will cover four other purposes: Foreshadowing, Showing growth of the characters,
Revealing Emotions, Seeing a tone or mood, and Creating interesting blend of narration.

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