He says, she says… The Power of Dialogue

“Do you remember this one?”

My wife wiped beads of perspiration off her brow.  Shielding her eyes from the blazing sun with one hand, she pointed to a scraggly, thorn-laced bush with the other.

“Um…ah…”

“You were in your nothing box again, weren’t you?” she said.

“No, not really.”

But she wasn’t fooled. “Yes you were. You were a million miles away, thinking about something else.” She planted her feet on either side of the thin trail and pointed again. “We’ve seen this plant before. Earlier on the hike.  Remember?”

“Buckhorn cactus?”  It was a wild guess.

“You’re hopeless.  Look, this is getting serious. Red berries. Small tight leaves. Prickly thorns. Who cares about the name. It’s a very unusual plant and we’ve seen it before.”

She marched on. “We’ve walked in a complete circle.  We only have an hour –  maybe less – of daylight left.”

I plodded behind, legs weary from long miles.

“Hopeless,” I heard her mutter again.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a stellar piece of literature, but before you trash it completely, let’s tally what you might have learned:.

  • I have no memory for the names of plants and no intention of learning them
  • I often drift into my ‘nothing box’ – that mysterious place of deep thought, a state of semi-consciousness that blocks out any sensory input, something my wife claims is universal for guys
  • My wife and I have been married a while (40 years and counting); enough to know each other’s habits and (shudder) each other’s thoughts
  • We like to hike; my wife takes the lead; I have trouble keeping up

Alright, enough about us. What else, dear reader, might you have learned from this passage?

  • Place: desert
  • Time: late afternoon
  • Temperature: Hot and getting hotter
  • Mood: frustration escalating into desperation
  • Problem-conflict: Not entirely clear. Lost? Time running out? Marital issues? (Nix the latter. We’re fine)

chatterSuch is the power of the scene.  In a few short lines, the reader learns much.  But in my example, notice what mechanism is doing most of the heavy lifting.  Dialogue.

The bantering exchange between us tells the reader a great deal.  The words we say, the way they are conveyed, the actions that accompany them – pointing, plodding, marching – all reveal subtle bits of setting, character, mood, and conflict.

Scenes show rather than tell. And there’s nothing more engaging that a healthy exchange to advance the plot and keep the reader glued to the page.

 

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