Well-structured dialogue

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

Dialogue is a powerful tool in the development of character, conflict, humour, drama, tension, suspense and pace. But dialogue must be handled skilfully in order to accomplish any of its objectives. Without a proper understanding of how this is done, a story will always suffer for it. In this blog post, we look at why well-structured dialogue is intrinsic to plot and scene structure.

Every dramatist will tell you that dialogue is a great skill unto itself. This makes sense when we realize that the play is structured from the spoken word. Setting, action, body language, tone of voice, these are obviously all relevant to the play but do not structure it. If the dialogue is poorly structured, the play pays a high price for it. Every word has a reason for existing in the play and it is always related to character and the overall plot arc. Although the dialogue in our story is embedded in the narrative, which obviously includes much more than dialogue, in some respects the dialogue in our story is very similar to the dialogue in the play.

Let’s try an experiment! When reading over part of a well-written story that is set indoors, has no inner monologue and is made up of about fifty per cent dialogue, let’s imagine that we are actually reading a play when reading the dialogue. Now, rather than see everything else outside of the dialogue as part of the narrative, instead we will imagine it as instructions for stage setting, props to be used and prompts for the actors to perform actions, body language and tone of voice. When we view the story from this angle, we can see the absolute necessity of having our dialogue structured properly because we see clearly how it is an integral and fundamental part of narrative structure.

Even though it often seems to ramble, real-life dialogue is also structured because it has purpose. The structure required of this type of dialogue will depend on situation and context. Even casual conversations between casual acquaintances in the street work this way: they are generally brief and the context is highly unlikely ever to encourage the talkers to divulge personal and intimate details about themselves.

Imagine saying to a casual acquaintance on a chance meeting in the street, “Hello. How are you?” and receiving for a reply a long list of their ailments with details thrown in regarding each one. This isn’t the response you would expect or you would never have asked the question. This is the type of response you offer a doctor. Socially, most people understand what is meant by “How are you?” and giving a long list of ailments as a reply would be an inappropriate and anti-social response.

Think of a job interview. Would we tell a prospective employer about the view from the window next to our desk on our present or last job? Would we tell them about the type of sandwiches we ate at work? Would we ramble on giving details about what others had for lunch? What about detailed descriptions of our work colleagues and their annoying habits? Of course, we wouldn’t say any of this. We are in a particular setting and have to abide by a set of protocols in our interview. There are a narrow range of subjects we will discuss and all our cues for discussion will come from the interviewer. She will set the subject matter and control the language, tone, rhythm, pace, and order and length of discussion on each subject. In other words, she will structure the interview’s dialogue. She will do this because there are only certain things she wants to know and find out about us. If we ignore her cues, her structure, and go off on our own tangent we will not be considered suitable material for employment in that company.

Imagine our reader is like our potential employer who is interviewing us. They expect certain things from our story. They expect a well-written and well-structured plot. Everything in the story must abide by that expectation. The reader doesn’t want rambling dialogue any more than rambling description of any kind. If we let them down on this point, they will very likely lose interest in our story, which, of course, is the equivalent of the interviewer dropping our job application in the bin.

How can we ensure that our efforts at writing dialogue make it an integral part of the plot structure? Well, let’s think of what the scenes in a story are actually trying to achieve. All the story’s scenes must fit together to make a continuum in which the plot develops smoothly and the tension is constantly rising. Because every scene must support the overall plot arc, we know that each scene must be structured accordingly to achieve this end. We know that each scene also has a beginning, middle and ending. It has a high point and an arc of rising tension. Therefore, whatever dialogue goes into the scene must support this structure.

Let’s analyse a scene to see how it actually works in practice. Below is a small scene from my children’s short story The Meanie in the Sweetshop. This is a good example as it is made up almost entirely of dialogue. The two boys, the two protagonists, are discussing the meanie with the other schoolchildren. Up to this point in the narrative, the reader only understands the meanie’s horrible behaviour through Dan’s and Bill’s experience. Now we discover that other children are just as exasperated with her. This is an important point to raise in the story as it explains why many children will go along with Dan’s plan in the last scene. The scene triggers the idea for Dan’s final plan. The scene is well-structured and sits as a link between two action scenes. It is short, quite fast-paced and with rising tension and excitement. Necessary information is passed across dramatically and it ends on a question the reader wants answered.

The meanie’s reputation had spread throughout the whole school and many were ready for a revolt.

  1. “The way she treats us boys,” one said. “You’d hardly believe it.”
  2. But a girl said, “Yesterday she told us we were like cockroaches swarming all over her shop. She said from now on no more than two of you inside at any one time. I said to her, ‘supposing it’s raining outside?’ She laughed, ‘then you girls get wet!’”
  3. “This is outrageous!” cried another boy. “Just because we’re young doesn’t mean we can be treated this way. We’re not criminals. We’ve done nothing wrong. Our money’s as good as anyone’s.”
  4. “We could avoid the shop, but where else might we go? There’s nowhere else around. And we don’t have a shop here in our crummy old school.”
  5. A small boy with a shy face, who rarely ever spoke, now said, “We need to teach her a lesson. She seems to like counting. But would she like it so much if she had to do it all day?”
  6. Dan’s eyes swelled with excitement. “Yes, what if she had to count all day? And look how many of us can’t stand her. You’ve given me a great idea.” Later, he said to Bill, “We’ve been going about it all wrong. The monkey and the disguises weren’t going to do the trick. We need to really put the pressure on and make her so sick of working in the shop that she’ll never want to work there again.”
  7. “How will we do that?” asked Bill.

The scene is broken up with numbering for analytical purposes.

  1. We know already how badly boys are treated because of Dan’s and Bill’s experience and the meanie is always running down boys in general. But this declaration from the boy leads to …
  2. … the discovery that girls have been treated just as badly
  3. Here another child speaks with indignation for all children.
  4. Another child explains how stumped they all are for another sweetshop.
  5. Here a boy says something that leads to …
  6. … Dan getting a new idea in how to tackle the meanie.
  7. Here is the question the reader wants answered.

From 1 to 7, the scene, almost all dialogue, builds rapidly to a climax dealing quickly with important points along the way.

Of course, the scene could be expanded on to include lots more dialogue that is still relevant to the plot. However, we only need so much to make our point. We don’t needs lots of children expressing their opinion. There is no point and it slows down the pace and wastes valuable words. And when a character speaks, they only need to say what is necessary to make their point.

Let’s take part of the scene and think about expanding it.

But a girl said, “Yesterday she told us we were like cockroaches swarming all over her shop. She said from now on no more than two of you inside at any one time. I said to her, ‘supposing it’s raining outside?’ She laughed, ‘then you girls get wet!’”

The girl could have gone on to give other examples, but she gave what she considered to be the best example of the meanie’s rudeness. She doesn’t need to say more. She doesn’t need to start saying who was in the shop with her. We don’t need elaborate detail. Make the point succinctly and then move on. This way we keep the dialogue from rambling, we keep the scene tight and well-structured and we keep the tension high.

Dialogue has great immediacy and can bring a character to life quicker than description. But it is a very tricky part of the writing craft to master and we must always consider its structure in doing so. Dialogue exists for a purpose. Therefore, it must be structured correctly in order to effectively fulfil that purpose. Its structure must also conform to the rules of scene structure, as dialogue’s overall goal, like the scene itself, is to develop character and plot.


This post is a slightly edited extract from Chapter 7, Good, well-structured dialogue from the book How to Write Children’s Short Stories (for the Middle Reader), by Jerry Dunne.

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About jerrydunne

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