What’s That You Say? [Round Three]

Good morning, fellow writers! It’s another beautiful Monday, and we’re talking again about talking. There’s a lot to say about the subject!

Three sentences into my draft, my sister phoned me. “This is just going to be a quick call,” she said right up front. Personal experience tells me that phone calls between the two of us are never quick, but her time limit was set by the need to arrive someplace at a particular time. I caught her up on the activities of my children, which led to discussions about Life, the Universe, and Everything — or, in other words, the directions people go with their lives, the earthquakes in Oklahoma, and the biblical end of the world (mainly along the lines of “Why do people act so surprised? We’ve known this was coming for centuries.”) For us, it was a short conversation!

Then she told me that she really did have to go. She’d ditched her sweat pants and it was going to take two hands to wriggle into her jeans.

You might ask what this has to do with dialogue, besides the obvious fact that the two of us were carrying on a conversation, but not only did her words evoke an instant image (How many of you have put on a pair of jeans? You know how it works), it provided a key element of fictional dialogue: Tension.

Or in our case, humor.

Back to the concept of tension, though. You might recall that in my original post on the subject we discussed how dialogue had to do four things: advance the plot, reveal character, provide information, increase tension. How can you tell if your dialogue is providing tension? Well, are there unanswered questions? Is there more that must be said to clarify the situation? Can it/does it lead to conflict? (Conflict can be physical, emotional, mental, magical…) Tension makes the reader ask questions, and it makes him want to keep reading to discover the answers.

What if I had kept my sister on the phone? Would she have knocked over a vase of flowers whilst hopping around, pulling up her pants? Would she have procrastinated until her appointment came knocking on the door? Maybe she’d have hung up on me and I’d have taken insult. Maybe the person at the door had an ulterior motive for asking my sister to drive her and her cat to the vet… (It just sounded like an innocent favor!)

Authors often write dialogue that carries information, but lacks tension.

“Ah, good, you’re here,” the lord steward said when his henchman was shown in the door, “I was beginning to worry about you.” 

The henchman bowed. “I was unfortunately detained.”

“Can I offer you a drink?”

“No, my lord, but thank you. The Chancellor gave me wine.”

We know what happened, but it’s not very exciting. I’m not worried about the characters, and I’m really not wondering what happened next, are you? There are a couple of ways we can add tension to this scene. The first is to put the tension directly into what they’re saying:

“Ah, good, you’re here,” the lord steward said when his henchman was shown in the door, “I was beginning to worry about you. You might have sent word.” 

The henchman bowed. “I was unfortunately detained when the Chancellor himself took me aside. For a private meeting.” 

“And you agreed?” 

“What else could I do?” 

“Do you need a drink?” 

 “No, my lord, but thank you. His lordship insisted I drink with him.”

Here, the tension is between the characters, and you can see it in the words they speak. Tension can also be increased by adding it between the lines of dialogue:

“Ah, good, you’re here,” the lord steward said when his henchman was shown in the door, “I was beginning to worry about you.” 

The henchman bowed carefully, then went to the nearest chair, holding himself up on the curved back with hands that trembled. His skin had taken on a pasty pallor, and he looked older than his years. “I was unfortunately detained when the Chancellor himself took me aside. For a private meeting.” 

“Shades, do you need a drink?” 

The henchman gave a little shake of his head. “No, my lord, but thank you. His lordship insisted I drink with him.”

Tension suggests that something else is going on. It makes the reader concerned or curious enough to keep reading, even if the spoken words not particularly remarkable. While you’re writing, ask yourself this: If a stranger were nearby, would he try to eavesdrop on the conversation?

What are some of your favorite lines of dialogue? What makes them ‘pop’?

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