Updated: Jul 4, 2020
Series A Contents:
Introduction to the Levels of 'Show
Components of Narrative Storytelling
Narrative Type Part 1: Dialogue
Narrative Type Part 2: Dramatic Action
Narrative Type Part 3: Exposition
Narrative Type Part 4: Pacing & Rhythm
*Note: Please keep in mind all of the examples, save one, came off the top of my head. They aren't super. I ask you not to hold this against me. Thank you.
Dialogue is always showing. Or so conventional advice would have you believe.
I suppose on some basic level this statement is true. If there is dialogue, then you are in immediate scene (remember your Components of Narrative Storytelling?), and if it is in immediate scene it is showing, right?
Well. You're right about the first part. But under our definition...showing=strong image....dialogue both internal and external can be some of the worst cases of telling you'll find.
What some writers forget is that dialogue is so much more than lines of speech between quotation marks. It cannot be thought of as something apart from the narrative, separate from dramatic action, or even exposition. All the parts of your narrative must fit seamlessly together.
For this reason I like to think of "dialogue" as not only character's speech, but also the action that happens around it. Your characters are like actors in a film. The line said without any action or body language would make for a pretty awful watching experience.
Through the rest of our discussion on Narrative Types, we will be approaching them with a holistic attitude. Dialogue cannot be discussed without the dramatic action surrounding it and so on.
So think of showing dialogue as good acting. Simple.
Let's take a look a quick example of telling dialogue or bad acting.
Gloria looked at her daughter and demanded, "You put that money back in my drawer right this instant, missy."
Becky glared back at her mother and started, "You never let me have any fun! I just want to go out with my friends for once. I'm sick of being stuck in this house all day, every day. You owe this to me. Yesterday I went into the attic and found an old box with a bunch of papers. When I opened it I found a bank statement showing that you spent all my college fund on one of your stupid get rich quick schemes that you have been coming up with since I was a little girl. They are the reason Dad left you too...."
"Beck...I'm so sorry" her mother said with sad eyes.
"It's too late for your sorries."
"I never meant for you to get hurt, but I promise that it's all going to pay off. Soon."
"I'll never forgive you." Becky said.
OK. Other than being overly dramatic and a product of my sleep-deprived brain, this passage is terrible for many other reasons too. It may be dialogue but boy is it telling.
Let's quickly go over some of the things wrong with this passage of dialogue that keeps it from giving us a strong image.
1. Bland action. Looked at her daughter...glared back at her mother...sad eyes...It's all pretty boring stuff that doesn't evoke any real emotion or image.
2. On-the-nose. The speech in the second paragraph is too on-the-nose, giving us information unnaturally just for the sake of giving it—that's the reason dad left you too...schemes you have been coming up with since I was a little girl...
3. Narrative Summary in dialogue. Now, assume this is the first time in our imagined story that the daughter character going to the attic and finding the box has been mentioned at all. Plenty of amateur writers approach dialogue this way, using it to add scenes and events into the narrative that they didn't want to write for whatever reason.
4. Dialogue tags. Yes, dialogue tags. You're told to use them (especially 'said') where you need to. I say you NEVER need to use them! That might be a lot to ask, but tags are always telling no matter what. They help guide the reader's understanding of who is talking at what time, but if you have done your job correctly and are showing on ALL the levels we discuss in this series, your readers should have no problem understanding who is speaking and when.
Now let's take another look at our piece of made-up dialogue....but better.
Cool air prickled the back of her neck, and she turned to find Gloria in the doorway. "You put that money back in my drawer right this instant, missy."
Becky dropped her eyes to the shag carpet. " I just want to go out and have some fun for once."
"What did you just say to me?"
Gloria put her fists on her hips and charged forward. But Becky didn't balk this time. No. She owes me. She lifted a hardened gaze to her mother. "I'm sick of being stuck in this house all day. Every day I go to school then come home and study until bedtime, and I have never complained. Because I know that I am meant for more than this! I know that if I work hard enough I can go to a good school and do something great."
She brushed past her stunned mother and out of the room, returning seconds later with a piece of crumpled paper in her fist. Shoving it into her mother's hand, she stood, shaking. "But you couldn't let me have that either could you?"
"B-Beck....where did you find this?"
"All the money Daddy left me. Gone. And for what? What this time, Mom?"
Notice this passage lets the reader come to more of their own conclusions, using action to help convey emotion and much more. But this was just a short introduction to help you understand how things can go wrong in dialogue and actually turn it into telling rather than showing.
Making showing dialogue can be done in many ways. The above, fixed passage is hardly an example of glowing dialogue, but it does get us started.
We cannot forget that levels build on top of each other, and the narrative types, including dialogue, are built on top of the components of fiction, that is immediate scene, narrative summary, and description.
So let's break this lesson down according to the foundation your dialogue is built upon.
Description and Dialogue
Now, I hope that description through the use of dialogue is pretty self-explanatory. All aspects of your writing should be pulling double or even triple duty by moving the plot forward, show us a character, setting, or creating suspense, and dialogue is no different.
For instance, you have a setting that you would like to describe in a new scene. Rather than spending the time explaining the scenery, use your dialogue (more so the beats around your dialogue) to do it for you. I have highlighted the bits of description for your ease.
She traced her fingers along the desk's dark grain, studying how the movement made the sunlight ripple across the glossy finish like waves on the ocean.
Her eyes slowly lifted to meet Nigel's, wild and red.
"God. Have you even heard a word?"
"You should leave. You can't be seen here." She slouched back in the leather chair and returned her attention to the desk's top.
Nigel stumbled over the stacked books on the floor. Half-falling, he slammed his fist into the metal filing cabinet. "The cops are gonna come bursting through that door any second, and you act like you've got nothing to do with this!"
You can tell right away the characters are in an untidy office (a swanky one at that), and that the one character is in quite the ruffled state. Notice most of the description happened between the lines of dialogue as action. Every part of this passage works to move the plot along, characterize, or describe (or all three) the scene. The actual speech part of dialogue should be kept natural, meaning if you can't fit a description in there naturally and believably, don't do it. However, dialogue is so much more that what's found inside the quotation marks, it is also what is happening around them.
We did not use tags in this passage. Dialogue tags keep writers from being creative and coming up with ways to better use those spaces. You can use the moments between to help with pacing and create rhythm. You can use them like I did, to include your scenes "props," and you can use them to characterize your actors. Do your characters a favor and help them act better by keeping tags out of it as much as possible.
Around dialogue is a great place to add your description. The immediacy of dialogue works to offset any pacing issues that can come with inserting into exposition and narrative action. But add it in little sprinkles throughout, rather than dumping all of it on us in one big chunk.
Immediate Scene and Dialogue
Like we have said, dialogue is always immediate no matter what. It is a better way to show your story because it is the most engaging for the reader. That's not to say you don't have to work to make it so. Same as with description, you can use the lines between the speech and get rid of tags.
I want to give you another example of telling vs. showing dialogue because I think maybe you don't believe me that dialogue can be telling.
Janet called, "Help. I'm stuck!"
"How did you even get in there?" John asked as he looked down at her ankle, jammed between two logs.
Janet took off after John at full speed, but rather than shooting forward, she shot to her face on the ground, ankle jammed between two rotting logs. "John!"
Rolling his head back and groaning like a teenager told to pull up his pants, he sauntered back to his charge. "How are you even still alive?"
There are just a few things I would like to point out about this example.
1. The showing version not only moves the plot forward but gives us a much clearer image of the characters. Their personalities come out.....basically, they are better actors than the characters in the telling version.
2. The beats around the dialogue do not have to be as long as the ones I have shown here. Sometimes a simple she flushed etc. will suffice. We will speak more about when to decide these instances in Narrative Types: Pacing & Rhythm
3. The speech itself is more precise in doing double duty (moving plot and characterizing.) It also avoids echos and redundancies. "John!" rather than "Help. I'm stuck!" The latter line is redundant because it is obvious she needs help just from the situation she is in. I chose the call, "John!" because I felt it helped better develop the idea that Janet is reliant on him. She doesn't want help, she wants him to come (of course this is all in my head and you may not get that by just reading a small snippet of this random short story in my mind, made up on the spot.) The line "How are you even still alive?" tells us so much more than the first version could, about their past, his personality, how he feels about her, etc. That single line characterizes both him and her at the same time. And the dialogue is oblique...to find out more about writing oblique dialogue take a look at this post.
Internal Dialogue in Immediate Scene
Internal dialogue follows the same rules as external dialogue. It is also a great way to add to your immediate scenes and show your character's internal state. However, you have to be careful not to reveal too much in internal dialogue, depending on the character's personality.
In fiction, just as in life, body language communicates much more emotion than words ever could. If characters are always saying how they feel, even in their heads, it will start to seem like the character's internal dialogue is there just so the author can lazily tell us what they feel without actually showing us.
Although, some characters fit well with this kind of internal dialogue. It all depends on their personalities.
One character like this is Joe Abercrombie's Glokta, from his First Law series. The constant internal dialogue is fitting because he is a man in a position of power but also subservient to the whims of his superiors. He is a very damaged and negative person. The internal dialogue helps show us his personality. Not all characters have the personality for this much internal dialogue. But I will add a passage here so you can see how both forms of dialogue help Show.
"God will not follow where I am going," Glokta muttered, as Kahdia shuffled slowly from the room.
Cosca grinned down his long nose. "Back to Adua, eh, Superior?"
"Back, as you say, to Adua." Back to the House of Questions. Back to Arch Lector Sult. The thought was hardly a happy one.
"Perhaps I'll see you there."
"You think so?" More likely you'll be butchered along with all the rest when the city falls. Then you'll miss your opportunity to see me hanged.
"If I've learned one thing, it's that there's always a chance." Cosca grinned as he pushed himself away from the wall and strutted towards the door, one hand rested jauntily on the pommel of his sword. "I hate to lose a good employer."
"I hate to be lost. But prepare yourself for the possibility of disappointment. Life is full of them." And the manner of its ending is often the greatest one of all.
"Well then. If one of us should be disappointed." And Cosca bowed in the doorway with a theatrical flourish, the flaking gilt of his once magnificent breastplate glinting in a shaft of morning sunlight. "It's been an honour."
I suppose if I had to say one thing about dialogue in immediate scene, or just dialogue in general, it would be to remember that dialogue does not happen in a vacuum.
What your characters DON'T say is equally as important as what your characters do say.
To learn what else Abercrombie can teach you about writing, check out this post here.
Dialogue in Narrative Summary
I really should refer to dialogue in narrative summary as "using dialogue to break up and enliven narrative summary."
Adding dialogue is a great way to fix your scenes that have gotten narrative summary heavy by forcing then into immediate scene. This can be done through flashback that includes dialogue (but not flashback that becomes its own scene entirely) or through stories within stories that come alive and open the reader's imagination just as any immediate scene would. Others accomplish this through the use of poems, songs, or books/inscriptions/messages that characters read etc.
I think it is best just to jump into an example to better explain to you what I mean.
Greg sauntered down the glistening asphalt, side-stepping the odd puddle. His hands in his pockets, he stewed on the last time his father had embarrassed him this much. A pit of rage still knotted his stomach as it all came rushing back.
Ninth grade he had picked him up late from school, drunk as a dog.
When Greg had walked up to the old car with his then girlfriend—was her name Hazel?—his dad rolled down the passenger side window. "Shiiiiit son! How'd you get a hot number like her to give you the time of day?"
His father leaned over so far across the seat, he lifted his foot off the brake and the car slid forward into the rear bumper of another.
"Dad. You're drunk. You should leave before someone from the faculty sees you." Greg looked around helplessly, hoping nobody was paying attention. All eyes were on him.
"Hows 'bout I give you a ride home little lady, and you can get a taste of a real man. Leave this toothpick here."
Luckily, she never did get in the car. Though she did take his advice a little while after. Greg kicked a pebble down the road and watched it skip. Someday the old man will die, he reassured himself.
Notice in this example, I could have summarized what happened in the past between father and son and moved on quickly.
But that would have been telling so......
How about another example.
Wan began strumming the guitar gently as if it were a delicate woman. He opened his mouth and suddenly the packed bar went quiet.
"Glogens strapped a gun to his back,
and waited for the final siren to call.
As soon as the enemy attacked,
He ran out of his hidey-hole.
It looked like our men would lose,
So they began to retreat.
Except Glogens, who pulled out a hand grenade,
And blew those assholes off their feet."
He finished, and the room remained silent. The old men, some of them missing limbs, shifted in their seats, some cracked knuckles, and all drilled holes into Wan with their eyes. Perhaps this was not the place to bring up the war.
In this one, the little song provides background information to move the plot forward without the need for any lengthy narrative summary history lesson. It says all it needs to, and the reader can fill in the blanks themselves.
Internal Dialogue in Narrative Summary
Internal dialogue can also be creatively worked into narrative summary to give it an interest boost and help show. Most likely, it will be used to interject background so long as it makes sense for the character thinking it and is not too "on-the-nose" like we discussed earlier.
Inner dialogue may not totally mitigate the need for narrative summary, but it can help bring it back to the immediate scene and keep it relevant.
Here is an example of inner dialogue to help show in narrative summary....The first sentence transitions it, the second is the summarizing line, the third incorporates it into the immediate scene.
Kendra white-knuckled the bar of the coaster and shut her eyes tight. A newspaper article flashed in her mind—67' Rollercoaster De-rails. 15 Dead—I'm safe, I'm safe, I'm safe, she took a long breath and counted down from ten.
Franco grabbed her shoulders and held fast.
She gripped the pommel of her sword, I ran through bigger men than this in the pits. It would be so easy....She let her hand fall, breathing back the fire in her gut. "This plan of yours better be good."
Alright. This post is getting long.
I hope that this dialogue and showing thing is getting a little clearer for you. At some point in the future, I will do a series dedicated just to dialogue, and we will cover much more than this.
But if you take away one thing from this post it should be that dialogue is much more than the sum of its parts, and that to show in dialogue, you do need to put in a bit of work. It is not automatic. It can be just as bland as the most droning narrative summary and the driest exposition if you are not careful.
The best advice I can give you about showing through dialogue is to make sure your characters are good actors. What are they doing? Can the reader envision it? What emotions are coming across in their body language and their speech? Are you taking the time to make us see it, rather than just telling us that it is there and hoping we take your word for it?
Next time we move on to Dramatic Action.
Please comment, ask questions, and add to the conversation. I will do my best to reply as quickly as possible.