Scene Structure Cures Dull Dialogue

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Dialog killed several of my stories. Long stretches where one character had to communicate something complex to another character. Boring.

Someone once told me they wanted me to liven up the dialog with more description and more body language. This never helped. But I gradually realized a different way to deal with the problem after reading chapter 4 (“The Scene”) of Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure and chapters 7 & 8 (“Dialogue” and “Details”) from Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and from studying Augustus Burroughs’ thrilling prose about mundane things in Running With Scissors.

Every scene, Bickham says, must:

1. Have two characters who have opposing goals.
2. Start by establishing the protagonist’s goal in that scene and how it’s important to the story goal.
3. Have active conflict between the two characters.
4. End in a setback for the protagonist.

Scene goals, Bickham says, must not be vague or philosophical, but specific and immediate, so that the reader can say at the end of the scene whether they were achieved.

Dialogue, Prose says, must always do several things at once. It conveys verbal information between characters, but also their attitudes towards each other, towards life, dominance and submission, attention and inattention, and, to the reader, their true intentions. Above all, each character in the dialogue must have a goal, a reason to be talking or listening, to determine what they say and don’t say.

Description, she says (and I’m paraphrasing heavily), is not like setting a stage or taking a photograph. She emphasizes the use of small details, but the lesson I take from her examples from famous stories, and from Burroughs’ writing, is a different one: Don’t describe things because they’re in the room. Describe things that pop out to the viewpoint character because of what they’re thinking.

This requires you to know what they’re thinking. And that requires them to be thinking.

Similarly, body language should not be used just to space out the dialog. Filling out bland dialogue with generic body language–”she bit her lip,” “he stamped his foot,” “she blinked”–is not very helpful. They’re not bad. I probably use at least one of these three expressions in every chapter of every story. But if all the character experiences are generic emotions–anxiety, impatience, shock–then you don’t have a character, but a plot device. A character has a goal in every scene, and that goal suggests what details the character notices and what they do with their body. Making every character have a goal or at least a train of thought will give you the body language, descriptive details, and conflict to keep dialogue exciting.

Armed with this information I did some writing and found out that there is an important caveat here. Don’t be too realistic in the boring way life is realistic. Character-A might be trying to be entertaining, but why? He’s chatting, projecting some personality; but without a purpose, it’s just aimless small talk. He’s flirting, but only in the automatic, disinterested way habitual to dominant males. Character-B might passively listens to Character-A ramble aimlessly. The scene does what my outline said it had to do(“cheer Character-B up enough for her to make another try”), but that structural task doesn’t engage the reader. Nobody has a goal.

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