Influence of Dialogue or Incidents on Action, Character or Decisions

Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Having trouble analyzing a story? Not sure what events are important? Or how speech influences the story? This lesson describes how dialogue and incidents affect the plot and characters.


Let me introduce you to Tom, an 8th grade student. One day, Tom arrives in English class to find the next unit will be on the novel The Secret Garden. Tom is immediately alarmed. He is not a very strong reader and always seems to miss out on the important details in a story.

Tom struggles with fiction, or literature involving imaginary stories, characters and events. To improve his comprehension skills, Tom should focus on the important dialogue and incidents in the novel. First, let's review what those terms mean. Dialogue is conversation between two or more characters, and incidents are the events that cause some sort of result. Incidents provoke action in the characters. This lesson aims to help Tom, and you, learn to analyze dialogue and incidents in works of fiction.

Incidents Affecting Action, Character, and Decisions

As Tom begins to read The Secret Garden, he finds the main character is Mary Lennox, a 9-year-old brat who is ignored by her parents and bosses around her servants. Tom should begin analyzing the story by noting which incidents affect the plot. In particular, Tom should look for the inciting incident, which starts the motion of the whole story. The Secret Garden begins in India during an outbreak of cholera, a deadly disease. This incident has major consequences. Both of Mary's parents die, and she is sent off to live with a distant uncle in England, where the rest of the story takes place. The cholera epidemic is the inciting incident. Without it, Mary would never travel to England at all.

To help Tom realize this, he can ask himself several questions.

  • What major event happens at the start of the story?
  • What is the conflict in the story?
  • What other events change the actions of the characters?

The answers to these questions will help Tom identify the inciting incident and others that affect the plot.

Lastly, many incidents can affect the characters and their decisions. As he continues to read, Tom starts to notice the events that affect Mary. For instance, once she discovers the hidden key to the secret garden, she immediately resolves to share the knowledge with no one. The incident of finding the key and Mary's decision about what to do with it has huge consequences. The key leads her to enter the secret garden and make it grow again. This simple act changes Mary, the gardener, the robin, and several other major characters. To find out how incidents affect a character and his or her decisions, ask yourself these questions.

  • Why did the character do that?
  • Who else was affected by that action?
  • What would change if a different decision was made?

Dialogue Influencing Action, Character, and Decisions

In addition to incidents, dialogue can also propel action and influence a character's decisions. Has Tom found any dialogue that influenced Mary and her decisions? Once in England, Mary makes this comment to a robin and one of the gardeners:

I'm lonely.

Once she says this out loud, she realizes how true it is and starts to make changes within herself. Instead of rejecting people, she seeks out the old gardener. She also begins to have real conversations with one of the maids. She starts to shed her bossy ways and relies more on herself. This piece of dialogue leads Mary to view herself in a different light, which begins to affect other characters and allows the rest of the plot to unfold. To analyze how dialogue can affect a character, ask yourself these questions.

  • What does the character say that shows who he/she is?
  • Is the character saying something you wouldn't expect?
  • What dialogue shows a decision has been made?

In addition to influencing a character and his or her decisions, dialogue can also propel the action of the plot. Returning to Tom, as he reads he comes to a chapter where Mary is stuck inside the house on a rainy day. The maid casually remarks:

If Mrs. Medlock'd let thee go into th' library, there's thousands o' books there.

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