Dialogue

DialogueYou know that point in your story when you have to get across a BIG chunk of information? And I’m not talking about backstory where you can ramble on for a while in a character’s POV, recreating a scene at a leisurely pace, adding all kinds of asides, embellished details, and emotional sensations. I’m talking about one character conveying information to another.

Requiring one of my characters to tell a story got me thinking about how you get a big chunk of information across through dialogue. In an early draft of my novel, I had the character relay the whole story in one fell swoop, recalling an incident that happened many years before, still fresh in her memory. But stories don’t unfold this way in real life, especially if the story is a difficult one to tell. Also, since my novel is told in the first person POV of the character being told the story, I couldn’t get inside the storyteller’s head. The challenge became: how to make the memory come alive while creating emotional resonance for the listener (and reader) without creating a behemoth chunk of dialogue filled with details.

In reality, people don’t go on for the equivalent of pages at a time (or if they do, they’re the ones who, at cocktail parties, you interrupt to inform them you absolutely must check in with the babysitter). Most people don’t corral you like that and deliver a monologue. They’re not Shakespearean characters, after all. They pause, they hesitate, they fidget, they lock eyes with the person they’re talking to, and then look away. And people don’t sit and listen for pages at a time. They ask questions, express reactions, roll their eyes, or stare at the storyteller in disbelief. It’s not in our human nature to sit and listen to a story placidly, even for a minute, without doing something. And that’s not even considering how the reader feels. How can you expect your reader to stay with you when you’re presenting an unrelenting chunk of story, no matter how compelling it is? So, you ask, how do I break up this unwieldy block? These may be obvious solutions, but here are some techniques I discovered when I tried to escape the quagmire of relentless dialogue:

• Pause to describe some of the storyteller’s actions. She could have trouble finding the right words, or look down at her lap or out the window, adjust her hair, or try to gauge the listener’s reaction by searching his face for clues. This not only also serves to break up the storytelling with beats of action, but it provides a window into her emotions.

• Have the listener ask a clarifying question, express confusion or surprise, stand up and storm around the room, contradict the storyteller, or reach for her hand in an expression of comfort. This not only breaks up the listening with beats of action, it can shed light on the two characters’ relationship and the emotions of the listener.

• Have the listener imagine visuals or details of the story, bringing his own particular spin to it. This paints a scene for the reader beyond what the storyteller is relaying, allowing the writer to sneak in details that the POV character might not otherwise know. This also helps conveys the listener’s emotional state while hearing the story.

I’m sure there are many other tricks and techniques for dealing with this issue. I’d love to hear from other writers what you’ve used to break up big chunks of dialogue.

11 comments

  1. Anna

    I like to lard in bits of action, as in the first suggestion.
    The third suggestion, going into the listener’s imagination, has wonderful potential for setting up miscommunications and misunderstandings, if that will serve the story.

    • Bonnie Waltch

      Thanks for responding, Anna. I love the observation that the 3rd example leaves room for misunderstanding and miscommunication – it opens the door to a lot of good plot twists!

  2. Jessica A. Kent

    Agree with these three! I just had to do this in my novel, and ended up splitting up the long storytelling conversation over the course of a few days. That way I could vary up the spots my characters were in, what they were doing, how they were interacting, and jump a little time, all while keeping the story going and intact. We’ll see if it works!

    • bonnie waltch

      I like that approach, Jessica. And it does give you the chance to vary things for the characters for each storytelling session. For the example I was using from my book a long story had to come out all at once, which was a bit limiting. Hope it works out well for you!

  3. Julia

    Do they need to hear it all at once? Can more of the story be told later when the listener wants to have some things clarified, or some interruption has passed, or the teller feels more confident in the listener?

    • bonnie waltch

      Thanks, Julia. For sure, if that works in your story! Jessica, above, pointed that out as well. I guess it just depends on how quickly the information can/needs to unfold in the course of your story. Good luck!

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