The 5 Functions of Dialogue in Your Story
Other than learning things like how to craft well-structured scenes or how to deliver what readers are expecting from a story in your genre or developing compelling and relatable characters or fleshing out three dimensional words…
Dialogue is the next thing on the list that you can tackle to take your story from good to great.
Let’s pretend we have two almost identical manuscripts—let’s say they both work from a big picture perspective, so they’re both genre appropriate, have three-dimensional characters, immersive setting, great structure, and things like that.
Now, let’s say manuscript #1 has tight and compelling dialogue, and manuscript #2 has too much dialogue—it’s a bit bloated.
Manuscript #1 with the tight and compelling dialogue is going to feel good to readers. It’s going to pull them into the story, and they’re going to trust you to take them on a journey from A-Z so they’re going to relax and be totally immersed.
Manuscript #2 with bloated dialogue or too much dialogue is not going to feel as good to readers. It’s going to pull them out of the story, and they’ll probably skim large chunks of dialogue just to get to something interesting. And as a result, their trust in you, the author, is eroded. They might finish this book, but they might not pick up the next one.
If you’ve ever read a book with too much dialogue or dialogue that feels bloated, you probably know what I’m talking about. It just doesn’t feel like a good reading experience.
So, to avoid creating a story like this—with too much unnecessary dialogue—I want to walk you through the five functions of dialogue. And before we dig into the details, I want to start with a little caveat.
Writing tight dialogue is not going to happen as you’re drafting.
When you’re writing your first draft (or even your second or third), I don’t want you to expect to get things “right.”
Instead, I just want you to keep these principles in mind as you write, and then refine your dialogue as you edit.
Understanding what you're aiming for (and what makes great dialogue) will help you write a stronger draft, but again, you will not get it all “right” when you’re drafting.
Okay, with that in mind, let’s dive into the five functions of dialogue.
The 5 Functions of Dialogue
Essentially, you want your dialogue to be doing one (or more) of these five things, otherwise, it’s probably just taking up unnecessary space in your draft.
#1. Dialogue can help you advance the plot
Great dialogue adds to the sense of movement within a scene, taking your characters closer to or farther from accomplishing their goals.
Through dialogue you can reveal information, create or intensify conflict, evoke curiosity or wonder, bring characters together, change the dynamic of a scene, and more.
As an example, let’s look at this piece of dialogue from a scene in The Ballerinas by Rachel Kapelke-Dale:
“I’ll give you a month to try her out in the part. If,” she said. “If I name the understudy. And believe me, I’m putting in an understudy from the very start.” She caught me with that sharp gaze. “Someone young, Delphine.”
“Can’t we wait?” I said—and to my embarrassment, my voice came out whiny. “Give her three months, really see what she can do?”
Nathalie’s invisible brows drew together. “It’s our three hundred and fiftieth anniversary season. There’s too much going on. So no, we cannot,” she said.
So, what does the dialogue in this little snippet of text do? Well, it does a couple of things actually…
It reveals some information that we didn’t have earlier—so the part about it being the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary for the Paris Opera Ballet tells us something new.
The dialogue also establishes some conflict because Delphine and Nathalie want different things—they want to cast different people in the ballet.
And it’s helped to change the dynamic of the scene because Nathalie is really putting her foot down here. So, there’s quite a bit happening in this one little exchange!
#2. Dialogue can help you reveal character
Readers can learn a lot about your characters through the way they speak to others. So, when crafting your dialogue, consider things like:
- Worldview - What does your character value? Why? What do they worry about or fear? What do they hope for? What kind of misguided beliefs do they have? Or internal baggage that impacts their day to day life? Do they have any biases?
For example, consider how a character who values inclusivity will speak and behave differently than a character who does not.
- Vocabulary - What is your character's educational background? What words would someone with that background use (or not use)? Where is that character from? Are there any words specific to that region?
For example, consider how an uneducated character might compensate by using big words (both in and out of context) to cover their insecurities. Or how a character from California might use the word “gnarly,” while a character from New York City would not.
- Syntax - When a character doesn't speak English as their first language, syntax (the order of their words) is the best way to show this.
For example, imagine reading about a character who says, "Can you tell me please where is bathroom?”
- Peer Groups - Groups that band together around a specialty or hobby have phrases they use that other people wouldn't. These can help you add authenticity to your characters and story.
For example, in Grey's Anatomy, the characters often say things like, "I have an appy at six." Casual viewers might not know they’re referring to an appendectomy, but the other doctors certainly do!
Lastly, you’ll also want to consider your character’s goals and motivations—both within a scene and the overall story. Through the things they say (and don’t say), readers can learn a whole lot about what your characters want and need as well.
#3. Dialogue can help you establish context
In many cases, the dynamics of a scene can be set up through dialogue (or through a mix of dialogue with action and exposition).
And yes! You will need to use exposition to help readers understand what's going on in your story, but you probably don't need as much as you think!
Let’s take a look at an example from Fable by Adrienne Young:
“Where are the others?” I asked, flipping a copper into the air and throwing my belt into the skiff.
He caught it, dropping it into the purse hanging from the mast. “Still working the traders.”
“What are you going to do with all of that copper, Fable?” Koy asked, tying off the line.
I watched the rope pull around the callused skin that covered his hand. “What copper?”
He looked amused, a sliver of teeth showing between his lips. “I know you’re trading all that pyre you’re finding. But I can’t figure out what you’re planning to do with the coin. Buy a boat? Start an operation with the traders?”
“I haven’t been finding much pyre.” I shrugged, twirling a piece of hair around my finger. The strands were the color of tarnished copper in the sunlight. “No more than usual.”
So, in this example, what have we learned?
Well, we’ve learned that Fable and Koy are alone, and that the other people who would normally be on this boat are still off working with the traders. And we’ve also learned that Koy is super curious about how much pyre Fable has been finding lately—and what she plans to do with her coin. We’ve also learned that she doesn’t want to reveal too much to Koy, too. So quite a bit of scene context is established here.
Now, let’s quickly go back to the idea of delivering exposition through dialogue. You’ll want to be careful when delivering exposition through dialogue because if you use dialogue to show readers something that two characters already know, this will pull readers out of your story.
Here's a bad example... "Hello, Mrs. W, my piano teacher from Los Angeles. Please come into my house that's on Hudson Street—the yellow one on the corner to be exact!"
Right? That’s not very fun to read.
So, to avoid this, you’ll want to determine how much exposition you really need, especially in the beginning section of your story.
And when in doubt, focus on the action first, then explain later.
Readers will wait for explanatory material as long as there's something meaningful happening in the scene.
The other thing I want to point out is that leaving out some exposition can also help you evoke a sense of mystery in readers.
As an example, let’s take a look at this snippet of text from Spells For Forgetting by Adrienne Young:
“We stopped coming after the fire, of course. Couldn’t believe it when we heard. It was all over the news for months. Same night that poor girl died, wasn’t it? What was her name? Lily?”
“So strange, the whole thing.” She dropped her head just a little to see my face. “What do people around here think happened to her?”
I let my eyes meet hers then, for just a moment. I knew that look. The morbid curiosity. The twisted entertainment of it all. But this wasn’t the first time someone had come into the shop asking the very same questions.
There was an unspoken understanding on Saoirse. We didn’t talk about that night. Or Lily Morgan. Especially not to outsiders.
So, notice how, in this example, the woman asking the questions is curious about the night of the fire and a young woman named Lily who died that same night. But the protagonist doesn’t want to comment, so she remains silent.
Because of this, there’s a sense of mystery evoked in the reader, right? We’re wondering what happened to Lily and who set the fire.
#4. Dialogue can help you set the tone/mood of a scene (and of your entire story)
The kind of book you're writing should be evident from the way people in your story talk to each other. A thriller should not sound like a romance, and a romance should not sound like a performance story.
Read through the below example to see if you can determine what kind of story this snippet of text comes from:
“Society mothers, you dolt. Those fire-breathing dragons with daughters—God help us—marriageable-age daughters. You can run, but you’ll never manage to hide from them. And I should warn you, my own is the worst of the lot.”
“Good God. And here I thought Africa was dangerous.”
Anthony shot his friend a faintly pitying look. “They will hunt you down. And when they find you, you will find yourself trapped in conversation with a pale young lady all dressed in white who cannot converse on topics other than the weather, who received vouchers to Almack’s, and hair ribbons.”
A look of amusement crossed Simon’s features. “I take it, then, that during my time abroad you have become something of an eligible gentleman?”
“Not out of any aspirations to the role on my part, I assure you. If it were up to me, I’d avoid society functions like the plague. But my sister made her bow last year, and I”m forced to escort her from time to time.”
If you guessed romance, you’re correct! This bit of text comes from book one in the Bridgerton series, The Duke and I by Julia Quinn. Here’s another example—can you guess the genre?:
I told the woman on the phone, “Yes, ma’am. How can I help you today?”
“I, um,” she said. “I’m not sure. I lost something, and I think maybe you could help me.
“Finding lost articles is a speciality,” I said. “What would I be looking for?”
There was a nervous pause. “My husband,” she said. She had a voice that was a little hoarse, like that of a cheerleader who’d been working a long tournament, but had enough weight of years in it to place her as an adult.
My eyebrows went up. “Ma’am, I’m not really a missing-persons specialist. Have you contacted the police or a private investigator?”
“No,” she said, quickly. “No, they can’t. That is, I haven’t. Oh dear, this is all so complicated.”
If you guessed mystery, you’re correct! This example comes from book one in the Dresden Files series, Storm Front by Jim Butcher.
So, hopefully you can see how the cumulative effect of your dialogue (and everything else) will set the tone/mood for your book. This is why it’s important to be intentional with the dialogue you include in your draft.
#5. Dialogue can help you reveal theme
Many aspects of your story can help you reveal (or hint at) your story's theme, but dialogue is an especially great way to do this!
For example, here’s a snippet from the final page of It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover/’:
Cycles exist because they are excruciating to break. It takes an astronomical amount of pain and courage to disrupt a familiar pattern. Sometimes it seems easier to just keep running in the same familiar circles, rather than facing the fear of jumping and possibly not landing on your feet.
My mother went through it.
I went through it.
I’ll be damned if I allow my daughter to go through it.
I kiss her on the forehead and make her a promise. “It stops here. With me and you. It ends with us.”
So, one of the main themes in this story is about breaking cycles. And you can so clearly see this through this snipper of dialogue, right?
If you do use dialogue to express (or hint at) your story’s theme, you will want to be careful to not let your characters become too preachy. Readers do not want a lecture or a sermon, so keep an eye out for long passages of dialogue where it feels like you’re talking at your reader versus bringing them along on a journey from A-Z.
So, there you have it! The five functions of dialogue in your story!
By understanding the five functions of dialogue, you can ensure that every line of dialogue serves a purpose, whether it advances the plot, reveals character, establishes context, sets the tone, or conveys the underlying themes of your story.
Remember, crafting impactful dialogue takes time and revision, so focus on capturing the essence of your characters and story during the drafting process, and refine the dialogue as you edit.
With skillful dialogue, you can elevate your storytelling and create a truly memorable reading experience for your audience. So, embrace the power of dialogue and let it help you bring your story to life!