Wednesday, November 25, 2009

TENSION in Dialogue

"On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me...

I'll send the complete 3-book Garden Gate series, signed as you like, to the person who can find an author's last name in the phrase: TWO TURTLE DOVES and name a title by that author OR submit a book title with one of the words from the phrase and the author. Submit your entry using the "Contact" button above. See complete details for the contest on the November 23rd post. Good Luck! The winner will be announced on Friday, November 27th. You'll have the books by Christmas!


Love. Light. Hope. TENSION!

Kohls and Kmart want me to go Christmas shopping at 4 AM. This isn't going to happen. No way. No how.

I will try my hardest (during civilized shopping hours) to find low-cost, eco-friendly, functional, surprising, life-affirming, unique gifts for 30 people. Sure, I could give gift cards, but I feel like I'm cheating, like I'm not willing to tremble the synapses to find the just-right gift. I know some of you will think I'm obsessive-compulsive. Please don't scold me. I'll only feel worse.

And that brings us to tension in dialogue. You must have it. I'm not talking about angry, arguing voices. I'm talking about two characters with conflicting motivations and needs conversing, purposefully.

Tension is what holds a reader in a story. They're wondering what will happen next for the characters they've come to love. Tension in fiction happens best in dialogue. I've selected three examples for your consideration. In each example the characters want something in conflict with what the other character wants.

In this first example from The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas, Queenie and her husband, Grover, are talking about a family who is camping on their land as they journey westward to California during the Depression.

“I hope you shooed them right off. You know how I hate tramps.”

“They’re not tramps, Queenie.”

The way he said it made me look at him. “Well, gypsies, then. It’s almost the same thing.”

“No, they’re not gypsies, either. Not these folks. They’re just people, hill people, down-and-out. They’re pretty near as broke as anybody I ever saw.”

“You told them to move on, didn’t you?”

“No,” he said, rubbing the little port-wine spot on his chin.

“We can’t have people like that camping on our land.”

“What do you mean, ‘people like that’?” Grover asked. He moved his hand away from mine and picked up a hermit and bit it in half, spilling crumbs on the table. “They’re people like Ruby and Floyd. People like you and me.”

Queenie wants the travelers to move on. She's uncomfortable with their presence, maybe she's frightened. Grover, on the other hand, sees these folks as people having a difficult time, like some of the people he knows. Dallas demonstrates the tension in the probing questions of Queenie and the resoluteness of Grover. Also, she uses dialogue tags masterfully--rubbing of the chin, the moving away of a hand--to show tension. Delicious! (BTW, hermits are a baked good.)

This next example is from Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Camel is a circus worker and Jacob is a fresh-faced kid joining up.

Camel squints up at me. “What did you say your name was?”

“Jacob Jankowski.”

“You got red hair.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Where you from?”

I pause. Am I from Norwich or Ithaca? Is where you’re from the place you’re leaving or where you have roots?

“Nowhere,” I say.

Camel’s face hardens. He weaves slightly on bowed legs, casting an uneven light from the swinging lantern. “You done something, boy? You on the lam?”

Camel wants to know something about this kid he'll be sharing a boxcar with. Jacob doesn't want to be known. Gruen uses short, choppy sentences and questions meant to rouse and some that aren't answered at all to create story-driving, reader-hooking tension. I love it.

In the category of books I wish I'd written is The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, a story about loyalty, tradition, and family--all in a one-roomed schoolhouse in Montana. In this example of tension in dialogue, Doig builds tension by having the characters interrupt one another. Listening is the toughest thing to do when you want to be the boss of everything.

Eddie Turley was one thing Carnelia and I could agree on. We both knew what an incurable pain in the neck Eddie could be when he wanted to. Panic starting to show in us, she and I faced each other with the breeze-blown rope between us. We had to invent together or else.

“I think we first of all have to put that through there and then—”

“No, dummy, that’s backwards, we to need to—”

“You’re not the boss of everything. Let me—”

“Will you just not be so grabby and–watch out!”

It was not clear who had been in main possession of the flag and who hadn’t. But there it lay, dumped in the dirt between us.

I didn't experience one lick of trouble finding dialogue with tension, some more subtle than others. That's because good writers always keep their character's motivations--wants and needs--in mind when they write dialogue.


Katie Ganshert said...

Love this post! Great reminder and awesome examples!

Patti Hill said...

Thanks, Katie! Yikes, you're a early riser. It's the best time to write...or are you doing some pre-Thanksgiving prep?

Carla Gade said...

Maybe Katie will be shopping at 4 am! :)

Thanks for showing us some good examples of how tension is used. It's not just in the dialogue, but the body language, too, I see.

Latayne C Scott said...

Wonderful examples, Patti.

By the way, I put YOUR books on my list of those I wish I'd written.

But then, if I wrote them, I wouldn't know you....

(It's those brain synapses you mentioned. They're not trembling here, they're flopping around.)


Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Dialogue is something I'm really trying to work at/strengthen in my writing. It's probably the most difficult for me. Thanks for these examples!

Carla Gade said...

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you at Novel Matters. I am thankful for you and this wonderful blog!

Patti Hill said...

And we're thankful for our readers. Blessings to all. May your day be drenched with His goodness.

Lori Benton said...

My guests should be rolling up the drive any time now, so wanted to stop by and wish you ladies a Happy Thanksgiving! Your blog is one of the things I've been thankful for, this year.

Creating tension in dialogue is one of my favorite things about writing. Saying one thing while the body says different, skirting issues, refusing to answer questions, subtle (or not so subtle) manipulation between characters, intimidation, misdirection, and how they hide from each other, even when they're trying to come clean... love it!

Anonymous said...

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our guests and followers. We are so blessed by your visits and your input. I love this community we're a part of! Blessings to you all.

Oh, and be sure to play our 12 Days of Christmas game.

Bonnie Grove said...

As the lone Canadian who ate her turkey last month, I wish a wonderful Thanksgiving to you all, and will take your warm wishes to heart even if I ate my turkey a month early.

I adore this community.