How Dialogue Propels Action

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  • 0:03 Dialogue Driving Action
  • 1:19 O. Henry's Dialogue
  • 3:46 Sue Monk Kidd's Dialogue
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

What we say and do creates change and action in our lives. In this lesson, we'll analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel action.

Dialogue Driving Action

Every day we have conversations with other people. Some of them are casual, some are serious, and some reveal pieces of our personalities and experiences. Three little words like, 'I love you' or 'We are over,' can be life-changing. In novels, short stories, stage plays, and screenplays, dialogue must always serve an important purpose. When written properly, dialogue:

  • Shows what characters are thinking, feeling, or what is motivating them
  • Creates action by causing something to happen (a change of mind, a change of heart, or a decision made)
  • Enhances important connections between characters that need to develop in order for the plot to move forward
  • Provides the reader with necessary information

The best way for writers to create meaningful dialogue is to choose words and lines carefully for their characters. A few lines of dialogue are often much more effective than a long conversation back and forth. Characters quickly come alive on the page when they have powerful lines to say before, during, and after moments when they're taking action, whether they're whispering to their best friend while crawling through the mud or admitting they're scared right before jumping out of a plane.

O. Henry's Dialogue

Let's look at how effective dialogue can be by analyzing some examples from literature. 'A Retrieved Reformation' is a famous short story by American author O. Henry. It was first published in 1903, and it tells the tale of an ex-convict's reformation or transformation.

Jimmy Valentine, once notorious for cracking safes, has changed his name to Ralph D. Spencer and won over the beautiful Annabel Adams. The only problem is there's a detective trying to find him, and Ralph (aka: Jimmy Valentine) knows that his true identity is in danger of being discovered. Then, one fateful day, Annabel's niece Agatha is playing in her father's bank and gets stuck inside the safe. Everyone panics. Here's the dialogue between Annabel and Ralph during that scene:

'Can't you do something, Ralph? Try, won't you?' He looked at her with a strange soft smile on his lips and in his eyes. 'Annabel,' he said, 'give me that flower you are wearing, will you?' She could not believe that she had really heard him. But she put the flower in his hand. Jimmy took it and put it where he could not lose it. Then he pulled off his coat. With that act, Ralph D. Spencer passed away and Jimmy Valentine took his place. 'Stand away from the door, all of you,' he commanded.

The story goes on as Jimmy decides to blow his own cover and reveal his true identity for the sake of saving Agatha. He opens his bag, reveals his safe-cracking tools, and manages to skillfully open the safe within ten minutes. This scene's dialogue shows exactly what Annabel and Ralph are thinking and feeling.

Ralph smiles and asks for Annabel's flower, showing that he wants something to remember her by, since her desperate plea pushes him to save Agatha. He doesn't know if Annabel will still want to be with him after she discovers he's been lying to her about who he is and the fact that he was a thief. So, he asks for the flower, boldly commands everyone to step back in order to move the action forward, and then gets to work.

If this scene had been summarized instead of described in detail with dialogue, we wouldn't get a sense of the bond between the characters, which the dialogue enhances. The conversation also communicates the desperation in the room, what is at risk here, and Annabel's words push Jimmy, motivating him to take action.

Sue Monk Kidd's Dialogue

The novel The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd also cleverly weaves dialogue into a descriptive scene as the characters are busy doing something that moves the story forward. This is an excerpt from the best-selling novel. In this scene, female teenager Lily is learning how to be a beekeeper from August, a middle-aged woman who welcomed Lily into her home.

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