The following is reprinted from "Martha Alderson's Blockbuster Plots for Writers Plot Tips eZine."
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We writers communicate in both obvious and subtle ways. Our characters do, too.
Writing a story often comes in drafts. Each draft/layer is determined by your own personal writing preference. Some writers write their entire first draft in dramatic action. Character emotional development comes later. Meaning comes later still. Others begin with character. Still others start with dialog. First draft has little action. Little character emotional development. Terrific dialog.
Well, some of the first draft dialog is terrific. In other places, the dialog serves as a place to dump information. With dialog, especially in the first quarter of the story, less is more. Only tell as much as needed to inform that particular scene. Leave the info dumping for later (or better yet, forgo it all together).
By less dialog, I mean less in terms of how much each character says at a time. Lots of short and specific dialog back and forth in rapid succession, keeps the pages turning and draws the reader deeper into the heart of the story world itself.
Dialog is a gift. At its best, dialog communicates to the reader the character's interior world, their thoughts and dreams, how they lie to themselves, to others, their beliefs, patience level, expertise, intelligence. At the same, great dialog advances the dramatic action plot.
The Dramatic Action plot is the external movement that allows the character to show who they truly are, first to the reader, then to themselves and then on a trajectory for character emotional transformation. Rather than random movements, the Dramatic Action plot works best if wrapped around the protagonist's well-defined goal. Dramatic action plays out in scene. Dialog comes from the dramatic action and unfolds moment-by-moment.
Think of dialog between two characters like two ships passing in the night. Each speaker has their own agenda, their own reason to converse. The characters' words lap up against each other. Often their words have little effect. Sometimes their words throw the other completely off route.
To create conflict on a secondary level, use the character's individual goals to help define their point of view in dialog. When each character comes to the conversation with something to prove or accomplish, the story moves forward. (And, sprinkle the dialog with authentic details and word use that reflects the time and setting.