Dialog at the Heart

In the January episode of the Odyssey Writing Workshop podcasts (I’m the Odyssey alum who who edits those podcasts from tapes of workshop lectures), award-winning author Nancy Kress, who’s written three brilliant how-to books on writing fiction, has a neat comment about dialog. She says that her stories did not sell until she started making dialog the heart of all her scenes–at least the scenes where characters were together and interacting.

Which is a really neat idea. Dialog is how real people interact, often with all sorts of layered subtext masking their true emotions. Dialog type and style also show a lot about characters’ backgrounds and attitudes. As Kress points out, dialog was the original element in all written fiction because all fiction used to be drama, stage plays, which are almost all dialog.

On New Year’s Eve, I went to see a regional production of Twelfth Night. I’ve read the play twice and have seen it produced many times over the years, but halfway through, I started thinking about Kress’s idea. The minor character of Fabian lounged silently through his entire first scene, seemingly unnecessary as Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek riposted back and forth. But Fabian had an important role in the next act helping Sir Toby develop his plan to embarrass Malvolio, through dialog.

The dialog let them settle on the details of their scheme, while also explaining it clearly to the audience. If it had been a prose narrative, all that information could’ve been communicated through internal monologue, but it wouldn’t have been near as interesting–or as dramatic. Fabian may have been window-dressing earlier, and several other characters were too at other points in the play, but he was indispensible there as a dialog foil.

So I got to thinking about Kress’s idea all over again. My stories come the most alive when there are multiple characters interacting, which I usually do through dialog. But other long stretches feature my protagonists alone. Perhaps I need to add more secondary characters, more Fabians, around them to get dramatization through dialog at the heart of my scenes.

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