Where Do You Insert Dialogue?

Someone asked me where they should insert dialogue into the novel they were writing. I went blank for a moment, unable to comprehend the question. Insert dialogue? To a great extent, dialogue is the story.  The most personal way people interact is by dialogue, and a story is or should be about people interacting,  about relationships. Even  action-oriented stories come down to a basic relationship: the hero vs the villain. 

A better question might be where to insert exposition, but even that is a specious question. Nothing in a novel should be inserted. Each element should flow one into the other, making a cohesive whole. I’ve heard people say that they’ve finished writing their novel, now all they have left is to go back and insert the symbolism. If you have to insert something for the sake of inserting it, it’s better to leave it out. Symbols, like other elements should flow out of the story. 

Novels need to balanced. Dialogue interspersed with exposition or action makes for a more interesting story than dialogue or exposition or action alone. A novel that is mostly dialogue seems lightweight; a novel with too much exposition feels heavy-handed; a novel that is all action gets boring after a while. 

One way to make sure the elements flow together is to know what you are trying to accomplish. What kind of story are you writing? What is your story goal? What is your premise? What is the core conflict? Once you know the core of your story, you can make sure every element connects to it. Sometimes you won’t know the core until you’ve finished the first draft. In which case, just write, let the words flow out of you and into the story. Then, when the draft is finished, read it to see what you have. Do any themes jump out at you? What is the gist of the story (the core conflict)? How can you use the various story elements help you bring out that conflict? Does every action have a reaction? Does every reaction have a cause? Which element will bring the conflict into sharper focus? If a particular conflict is a physical one, then action interspersed with terse comments is best. If a particular conflict is personal, then dialogue interspersed with bits of action is best. 

Where to insert dialogue, then, is not the real question. The real question is what do you want to say, and how do you want to say it?

On Writing: Muddling Through the Middle

Novels generally have a three-part structure: beginnings, middles, and ends.

Beginnings connect the reader to the main character, present the story world, establish tone, introduce the opposition, and compel readers to move on to the middle.

Endings wrap up all the strands of the story, give the outcome of the final conflict, and leave a sense of satisfaction and resonance.

Middles develop the confrontation between the main character and the antagonist, deepen character relationships, keep us caring about the main character, and set up the final conflict.

Middles keep the main character and the antagonist in conflict. If one or the other can simply walk away, there is no reason for the reader (or writer) to muddle through the middle. Duty can be the adhesive keeping them in conflict (a detective needs to solve a case). Moral obligation can be the adhesive (a character exacts revenge or a mother fights to save her child). Physical location can be the adhesive (a blizzard makes it impossible for the characters to leave a place).

Middles have a rhythm of action, reaction, more action, and how these beats are controlled determines the pace of the novel. Lots of action, little reaction gives a breathless pace. Little action, lots of reaction slows the pace.

Middles should have a sense of suspense, a sense of death hanging over the main character (can be physical, psychological, professional, or moral), and a sense of increasing risks and rising stakes.

Here are a few questions to keep in mind as you muddle through the middle of your novel:

What adhesive do you use to keep your characters from being able to walk away?

How do you vary the rhythm of action and reaction to create the pace of your novel?

Does your novel have suspense, some question to be resolved, something that will keep readers paging through the middle?

Do you have a sense of death hanging over your main character?

How do you keep increasing the risks for your character?

How do you keep raising what is at stake for your character?

Books Are Not Movies

Many writers see their novels as movies, picking a cast to portray their characters, visualizing scenes as they would play on the screen. But books are not movies. A movie set can be seen in an instant and does not detract from the action, while a long passage in a book describing that same scene postpones the action, making today’s readers impatient. (Action in a novel, as I am sure you know, is any forward motion that fosters change in the characters: dialogue, physical interactions, even a simple touch of the hand.)

Nor is a book a movie script. Some novelists are so enamored with envisioning their book as a movie that they omit descriptions altogether. They tell their story mostly by dialogue, which leaves readers untethered, “like water, willy-nilly flowing.”

If two characters are having an argument, for example, it is necessary for readers to know where it is taking place. An argument in a pub is different from an argument in a bedroom, but they don’t need a long description of the bar or the bedroom to get involved with the characters; a few significant details will anchor the scene in their minds. A detailed set is necessary for a movie’s verisimilitude, but those same details negate a novel’s illusion of being true. Do you stop in the middle of an argument to note the contents of the room? If you do, you lose not only your focus, but the argument as well.

Even a short descriptive passage can negate the illusion if the object or setting described has no significance to the story. A lamp may be placed on a side table in a movie set for no reason other than the set designer liked the way it looked, but if an author spends many words describing that same lamp, there has to be a reason. Perhaps it is a source of contention between characters. Or perhaps one character will bash another over the head with it.

So, if you visualize your novel as a movie, don’t describe everything you see. Describe only what is important, (what is important to the characters or to the story, not what is important to you as a writer) and then . . . ACTION!